Leeches may help prevent the next coronavirus outbreak

Using the latest biotechnology, a team led by Professor Douglas Yu of Britain’s University of East Anglia extracted DNA from digested blood in leeches’ stomachs, determined what animals they had fed on, and then produced a model of the distribution of wild animals in the Ailao Shan Nature Reserve in Yunnan province.

The same DNA analysis method could feasibly be used to examine drain water for evidence of illegal wildlife consumed or traded in markets, Yu says…

Wild animals are a reservoir of viruses that, due to their ability to rapidly change genetic make-up, regularly “jump” to other species, including humans…

Until recently, biotechnology couldn’t separate individual bits of DNA in the “soup” to identify which animals they came from. But the latest technology can process multiple DNA molecules at the same time, and it has become a powerful forensic tool.

Without seeing or touching the animals, their presence can be detected from a sample of soil, water – or the remnants of digested blood in a leech’s stomach.

Yu’s team extracted DNA from leeches’ stomachs, then applied sophisticated statistical software that could compare the different DNA sequences against animal DNA sequences in existing databases, similar to how facial recognition software matches an image of an individual face from a set of millions…

The results closely matched the biology of the animals. “The right species were found in the right places,” Yu says. It also gelled with previous records of animal sightings in Ailao Shan. The leeches could be trusted.

Scientific methods don’t really care what country, culture or economic system they operate in. Yes, everything from context to funding vary; but, real data produces a catalog of information that can provide new and revealing information, conclusions.

Good for you, Doctor Yu.