Future

New Portable DNA Kit Aids Global Pursuit Of Biodiversity

Transportable and cheap, a made-in-Italy DNA kit prototype promises to allow molecular analysis directly in the field, sending collected data instantly across the world.

A researcher using the DNA Field Lab
A researcher using the DNA Field Lab
Anna Martellato

TRENTO — A torrential rain drenches the Mount Rungwe forest in Tanzania. Under a big blue tent, four researchers are patiently waiting in front of their Skype webcam. They have just sent their data via smartphones to the other side of the hemisphere — namely, to the press room of the MuSe, the Science Museum of Trento. The response they are waiting for will have to cross an entire continent.

The feedback arrives quickly: "The sample corresponds at 95% to the Arthroleptis xenodactyloides frog." The researchers smile. They're excited, tired and overheated because of the humidity. "It's a new species! We did it!"

Thanks to a portable kit, a DNA sequence has been decoded outside a laboratory for the first time. The kit, called the "DNA Field Lab," allows molecular analysis directly on the spot and sends collected data instantly. The new instrument is changing the face of biodiversity exploration.

This made-in-Italy innovation that has worldwide repercussions is the result of a joint project carried out by MuSe and the University of Verona in collaboration with Oxford Nanopore Technologies and Biodiversa of Trento.

The transmission of DNA data via smartphone is the symbol of a new beginning. This new technology also means reduced time and costs for DNA codification — although since it's a prototype, prices are not yet known.

Four Italian researchers decided to fly to Tanzania in order to test the kit: Michele Menegon and Ana Rodriguez Prieto from MuSe, and Massimo Delledonne and Chiara Cantaloni from the University of Verona.

"The DNA Field Lab means the possibility to carry out biological measurements in the highest biodiversity areas on our planet," Menegon says. "It's a fundamental step, in a time when the funds needed to safeguard the diversity of life on our planet are not enough."

The goal of these four "Indiana Joneses of genetics" in Tanzania is to discover small wild animals and decode their DNA — an operation that usually takes several months, but now takes just half a day.

A small sample of the animal's DNA is required. Then the extraction and amplification of the sample happens in a thermal cycler. The kit is also equipped with a fluorometer, while the DNA sequencing is interpreted by a third-generation tool slightly larger than a USB key and connected to the computer. There's no need for electricity: Instead, a battery and a 3G or 4G cellular data network are sufficient.

This revolutionary device not only allows biodiversity discoveries: It can also perform "real-time" sequencing of any biological material, in any part of the world. It could extend to medical analysis, customs controls and food safety checks.

"For example, it could help Doctors Without Borders in areas affected by Ebola," Delledonne explains. "Still, it will take a year, maybe two."

The next step is finalizing the system's development. Only after that will it become a widely used tool.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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