Bringing the lab into the field

New technologies are bringing laboratories to the point-of-collection, improving sensitivity of field investigations and reducing delays

Many technologies get smaller, cheaper and better over time. From transistor radios to boom boxes to Discman to the iPod to now, portable music players have undergone a transition like many other technologies, reducing costs, improving speed, and capable of doing more. The evolution of  technology is coming into its own in a new interpretation of the scientific laboratory – in which new gadgets and capabilities are making laboratories portable so that they can be deployed into remote locations and have even been collapsed into a backpack.

This backpack PCR only weighs 10 lbs and can detect a single larvae in 25 mosquitoes

A recent article highlights some of these new technologies for monitoring lymphatic filariasis (LF) control programmes. In this paper, Zaky and colleagues detail trials of a field laboratory that fits in a backpack and weighs less than 10 lbs! The assay can extract DNA from mosquitoes (vectors of LF), amplify this DNA with a special tag, and then use this tag to visualise DNA on a test strip. A test band, in addition to the control, confirms that a mosquito has LF. They tried pooling mosquitoes, so more than one mosquito can be tested at once. The test is so sensitive that it can detect one larvae in a pooled sample of 25 mosquitoes.  Although this test is currently quite expensive ($7.50 for a pool of mosquitoes), costs should decline in the coming years.

These field laboratories are increasingly being used for in depth studies – not just detecting small organisms but quantifying whole genomes. New technologies have been used in space, during the 2014 West African Ebola Outbreak, and to study lemur genomes in Madagascar. Because of these relatively new real-time sequencing technologies, few resources are needed to supply and sequence whole genomes. A group of researchers is using these pipelines to improve food security in Africa. Teams can characterise the diversity of cassava diseases infecting a farmer’s field and provide recommendations for replanting. This provides increases in yield for the individual farmer but also provides important information on how these cassava viruses are evolving.

By bringing laboratories to the point-of-collection, it’s now possible to avoid delays caused by shipping samples and long lag times in diagnostic laboratories. These platforms enable testing in the field, without compromising on sensitivity or specificity in the analysis.

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