On the savannah near the Botswana-Zimbabwe border, elephants grazed contentedly. Nearby, postdoctoral researcher Alida de Flamingh watched and waited. As the herd moved away, she went into action, collecting samples of elephant dung that she and other wildlife conservationists would study in the months to come. She pulled on gloves, took a swab, and ran it all over the still-warm, round blob of elephant poop.
Sequencing DNA from fecal matter is a safe, non-invasive way to track and ultimately help protect over 42,000 species currently threatened by extinction. Scientists are using this DNA to gain insights into wildlife health, genetic diversity and even the broader environment. Applied to elephants, chimpanzees, toucans and other species, it helps scientists determine the genetic diversity of groups and linkages with other groups. Such analysis can show changes in rates of inbreeding. Populations with greater genetic diversity adapt better to changes and environmental stressors than those with less diversity, thus reducing their risks of extinction, explains de Flamingh, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
Analyzing fecal DNA also reveals information about an animal’s diet and health, and even nearby flora that is eaten. That information gives scientists broader insights into the ecosystem, and the findings are informing conservation initiatives. Examples include restoring or maintaining genetic connections among groups, ensuring access to certain foraging areas or increasing diversity in captive breeding programs.
Approximately 27 percent of mammals and 28 percent of all assessed species are close to dying out. The IUCN Red List of threatened species, simply called the Red List, is the world’s most comprehensive record of animals’ risk of extinction status. The more information scientists gather, the better their chances of reducing those risks. In Africa, populations of vertebrates declined 69 percent between 1970 and 2022, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
“We put on sterile gloves and use a sterile swab to collect wet mucus and materials from the outside of the dung ball,” says Alida de Flamingh, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
“When people talk about species, they often talk about ecosystems, but they often overlook genetic diversity,” says Christina Hvilsom, senior geneticist at the Copenhagen Zoo. “It’s easy to count (individuals) to assess whether the population size is increasing or decreasing, but diversity isn’t something we can see with our bare eyes. Yet, it’s actually the foundation for the species and populations.” DNA analysis can provide this critical information.
Assessing elephants’ health
“Africa’s elephant populations are facing unprecedented threats,” says de Flamingh, the postdoc, who has studied them since 2009. Challenges include ivory poaching, habitat destruction and smaller, more fragmented habitats that result in smaller mating pools with less genetic diversity. Additionally, de Flamingh studies the microbial communities living on and in elephants – their microbiomes – looking for parasites or dangerous microbes.
Approximately 415,000 elephants inhabit Africa today, but de Flamingh says the number would be four times higher without these challenges. The IUCN Red List reports African savannah elephants are endangered and African forest elephants are critically endangered. Elephants support ecosystem biodiversity by clearing paths that help other species travel. Their very footprints create small puddles that can host smaller organisms such as tadpoles. Elephants are often described as ecosystems’ engineers, so if they disappear, the rest of the ecosystem will suffer too.
There’s a process to collecting elephant feces. “We put on sterile gloves (which we change for each sample) and use a sterile swab to collect wet mucus and materials from the outside of the dung ball,” says de Flamingh. They rub a sample about the size of a U.S. quarter onto a paper card embedded with DNA preservation technology. Each card is air dried and stored in a packet of desiccant to prevent mold growth. This way, samples can be stored at room temperature indefinitely without the DNA degrading.
Earlier methods required collecting dung in bags, which needed either refrigeration or the addition of preservatives, or the riskier alternative of tranquilizing the animals before approaching them to draw blood samples. The ability to collect and sequence the DNA made things much easier and safer.
“Our research provides a way to assess elephant health without having to physically interact with elephants,” de Flamingh emphasizes. “We also keep track of the GPS coordinates of each sample so that we can create a map of the sampling locations,” she adds. That helps researchers correlate elephants’ health with geographic areas and their conditions.
Although de Flamingh works with elephants in the wild, the contributions of zoos in the United States and collaborations in South Africa (notably the late Professor Rudi van Aarde and the Conservation Ecology Research Unit at the University of Pretoria) were key in studying this method to ensure it worked, she points out.
Genetic work with chimpanzees began about a decade ago. Hvilsom and her group at the Copenhagen Zoo analyzed DNA from nearly 1,000 fecal samples collected between 2003 and 2018 by a team of international researchers. The goal was to assess the status of the West African subspecies, which is critically endangered after rapid population declines. Of the four subspecies of chimpanzees, the West African subspecies is considered the most at-risk.
In total, the WWF estimates the numbers of chimpanzees inhabiting Africa’s forests and savannah woodlands at between 173,000 and 300,000. Poaching, disease and human-caused changes to their lands are their major risks.
By analyzing genetics obtained from fecal samples, Hvilsom estimated the chimpanzees’ population, ascertained their family relationships and mapped their migration routes.
“One of the threats is mining near the Nimba Mountains in Guinea,” a stronghold for the West African subspecies, Hvilsom says. The Nimba Mountains are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but they are rich in iron ore, which is used to make the steel that is vital to the Asian construction boom. As she and colleagues wrote in a recent paper, “Many extractive industries are currently developing projects in chimpanzee habitat.”
Analyzing DNA allows researchers to identify individual chimpanzees more accurately than simply observing them, she says. Normally, field researchers would install cameras and manually inspect each picture to determine how many chimpanzees were in an area. But, Hvilsom says, “That’s very tricky. Chimpanzees move a lot and are fast, so it’s difficult to get clear pictures. Often, they find and destroy the cameras. Also, they live in large areas, so you need a lot of cameras.”
By analyzing genetics obtained from fecal samples, Hvilsom estimated the chimpanzees’ population, ascertained their family relationships and mapped their migration routes based upon DNA comparisons with other chimpanzee groups. The mining companies and builders are using this information to locate future roads where they won’t disrupt migration – a more effective solution than trying to build artificial corridors for wildlife.
“The current route cuts off communities of chimpanzees,” Hvilsom elaborates. That effectively prevents young adult chimps from joining other groups when the time comes, eventually reducing the currently-high levels of genetic diversity.
“The mining company helped pay for the genetics work,” Hvilsom says, “as part of its obligation to assess and monitor biodiversity and the effect of the mining in the area.”
Of 50 toucan subspecies, 11 are threatened or near-threatened with extinction because of deforestation and poaching.
Identifying toucan families
Feces aren't the only substance researchers draw DNA samples from. Jeffrey Coleman, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas at Austin relies on blood tests for studying the genetic diversity of toucans---birds species native to Central America and nearby regions. They live in the jungles, where they hop among branches, snip fruit from trees, toss it in the air and catch it with their large beaks. “Toucans are beautiful, charismatic birds that are really important to the ecosystem,” says Coleman.
Of their 50 subspecies, 11 are threatened or near-threatened with extinction because of deforestation and poaching. “When people see these aesthetically pleasing birds, they’re motivated to care about conservation practices,” he points out.
Coleman works with the Dallas World Aquarium and its partner zoos to analyze DNA from blood draws, using it to identify which toucans are related and how closely. His goal is to use science to improve the genetic diversity among toucan offspring.
Specifically, he’s looking at sections of the genome of captive birds in which the nucleotides repeat multiple times, such as AGATAGATAGAT. Called microsatellites, these consecutively-repeating sections can be passed from parents to children, helping scientists identify parent-child and sibling-sibling relationships. “That allows you to make strategic decisions about how to pair (captive) individuals for mating...to avoid inbreeding,” Coleman says.
Jeffrey Coleman is studying the microsatellites inside the toucan genomes.
Courtesy Jeffrey Coleman
The alternative is to use a type of analysis that looks for a single DNA building block – a nucleotide – that differs in a given sequence. Called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs, pronounced “snips”), they are very common and very accurate. Coleman says they are better than microsatellites for some uses. But scientists have already developed a large body of microsatellite data from multiple species, so microsatellites can shed more insights on relations.
Regardless of whether conservation programs use SNPs or microsatellites to guide captive breeding efforts, the goal is to help them build genetically diverse populations that eventually may supplement endangered populations in the wild. “The hope is that the ecosystem will be stable enough and that the populations (once reintroduced into the wild) will be able to survive and thrive,” says Coleman. History knows some good examples of captive breeding success.
The California condor, which had a total population of 27 in 1987, when the last wild birds were captured, is one of them. A captive breeding program boosted their numbers to 561 by the end of 2022. Of those, 347 of those are in the wild, according to the National Park Service.
Conservationists hope that their work on animals’ genetic diversity will help preserve and restore endangered species in captivity and the wild. DNA analysis is crucial to both types of efforts. The ability to apply genome sequencing to wildlife conservation brings a new level of accuracy that helps protect species and gives fresh insights that observation alone can’t provide.
“A lot of species are threatened,” Coleman says. “I hope this research will be a resource people can use to get more information on longer-term genealogies and different populations.”
Bacterial antibiotic resistance has been a concern in the medical field for several years. Now a new, similar threat is arising: drug-resistant fungal infections. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers antifungal and antimicrobial resistance to be among the world’s greatest public health challenges.
One particular type of fungal infection caused by Candida auris is escalating rapidly throughout the world. And to make matters worse, C. auris is becoming increasingly resistant to current antifungal medications, which means that if you develop a C. auris infection, the drugs your doctor prescribes may not work. “We’re effectively out of medicines,” says Thomas Walsh, founding director of the Center for Innovative Therapeutics and Diagnostics, a translational research center dedicated to solving the antimicrobial resistance problem. Walsh spoke about the challenges at a Demy-Colton Virtual Salon, one in a series of interactive discussions among life science thought leaders.
Although C. auris typically doesn’t sicken healthy people, it afflicts immunocompromised hospital patients and may cause severe infections that can lead to sepsis, a life-threatening condition in which the overwhelmed immune system begins to attack the body’s own organs. Between 30 and 60 percent of patients who contract a C. auris infection die from it, according to the CDC. People who are undergoing stem cell transplants, have catheters or have taken antifungal or antibiotic medicines are at highest risk. “We’re coming to a perfect storm of increasing resistance rates, increasing numbers of immunosuppressed patients worldwide and a bug that is adapting to higher temperatures as the climate changes,” says Prabhavathi Fernandes, chair of the National BioDefense Science Board.
Most Candida species aren’t well-adapted to our body temperatures so they aren’t a threat. C. auris, however, thrives at human body temperatures.
Although medical professionals aren’t concerned at this point about C. auris evolving to affect healthy people, they worry that its presence in hospitals can turn routine surgeries into life-threatening calamities. “It’s coming,” says Fernandes. “It’s just a matter of time.”
An emerging global threat
“Fungi are found in the environment,” explains Fernandes, so Candida spores can easily wind up on people’s skin. In hospitals, they can be transferred from contact with healthcare workers or contaminated surfaces. Most Candida species aren’t well-adapted to our body temperatures so they aren’t a threat. C. auris, however, thrives at human body temperatures. It can enter the body during medical treatments that break the skin—and cause an infection. Overall, fungal infections cost some $48 billion in the U.S. each year. And infection rates are increasing because, in an ironic twist, advanced medical therapies are enabling severely ill patients to live longer and, therefore, be exposed to this pathogen.
The first-ever case of a C. auris infection was reported in Japan in 2009, although an analysis of Candida samples dated the earliest strain to a 1996 sample from South Korea. Since then, five separate varieties – called clades, which are similar to strains among bacteria – developed independently in different geographies: South Asia, East Asia, South Africa, South America and, recently, Iran. So far, C. auris infections have been reported in 35 countries.
In the U.S., the first infection was reported in 2016, and the CDC started tracking it nationally two years later. During that time, 5,654 cases have been reported to the CDC, which only tracks U.S. data.
What’s more notable than the number of cases is their rate of increase. In 2016, new cases increased by 175 percent and, on average, they have approximately doubled every year. From 2016 through 2022, the number of infections jumped from 63 to 2,377, a roughly 37-fold increase.
“This reminds me of what we saw with epidemics from 2013 through 2020… with Ebola, Zika and the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Robin Robinson, CEO of Spriovas and founding director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. These epidemics started with a hockey stick trajectory, Robinson says—a gradual growth leading to a sharp spike, just like the shape of a hockey stick.
Another challenge is that right now medics don’t have rapid diagnostic tests for fungal infections. Currently, patients are often misdiagnosed because C. aurisresembles several other easily treated fungi. Or they are diagnosed long after the infection begins and is harder to treat.
The problem is that existing diagnostics tests can only identify C. auris once it reaches the bloodstream. Yet, because this pathogen infects bodily tissues first, it should be possible to catch it much earlier before it becomes life-threatening. “We have to diagnose it before it reaches the bloodstream,” Walsh says.
The most alarming fact is that some Candida infections no longer respond to standard therapeutics.
“We need to focus on rapid diagnostic tests that do not rely on a positive blood culture,” says John Sperzel, president and CEO of T2 Biosystems, a company specializing in diagnostics solutions. Blood cultures typically take two to three days for the concentration of Candida to become large enough to detect. The company’s novel test detects about 90 percent of Candida species within three to five hours—thanks to its ability to spot minute quantities of the pathogen in blood samples instead of waiting for them to incubate and proliferate.
Unlike other Candida species C. auris thrives at human body temperatures
Tackling the resistance challenge
The most alarming fact is that some Candida infections no longer respond to standard therapeutics. The number of cases that stopped responding to echinocandin, the first-line therapy for most Candida infections, tripled in 2020, according to a study by the CDC.
Now, each of the first four clades shows varying levels of resistance to all three commonly prescribed classes of antifungal medications, such as azoles, echinocandins, and polyenes. For example, 97 percent of infections from C. auris Clade I are resistant to fluconazole, 54 percent to voriconazole and 30 percent of amphotericin. Nearly half are resistant to multiple antifungal drugs. Even with Clade II fungi, which has the least resistance of all the clades, 11 to 14 percent have become resistant to fluconazole.
Anti-fungal therapies typically target specific chemical compounds present on fungi’s cell membranes, but not on human cells—otherwise the medicine would cause damage to our own tissues. Fluconazole and other azole antifungals target a compound called ergosterol, preventing the fungal cells from replicating. Over the years, however, C. auris evolved to resist it, so existing fungal medications don’t work as well anymore.
A newer class of drugs called echinocandins targets a different part of the fungal cell. “The echinocandins – like caspofungin – inhibit (a part of the fungi) involved in making glucan, which is an essential component of the fungal cell wall and is not found in human cells,” Fernandes says. New antifungal treatments are needed, she adds, but there are only a few magic bullets that will hit just the fungus and not the human cells.
Research to fight infections also has been challenged by a lack of government support. That is changing now that BARDA is requesting proposals to develop novel antifungals. “The scope includes C. auris, as well as antifungals following a radiological/nuclear emergency, says BARDA spokesperson Elleen Kane.
The remaining challenge is the number of patients available to participate in clinical trials. Large numbers are needed, but the available patients are quite sick and often die before trials can be completed. Consequently, few biopharmaceutical companies are developing new treatments for C. auris.
ClinicalTrials.gov reports only two drugs in development for invasive C. auris infections—those than can spread throughout the body rather than localize in one particular area, like throat or vaginal infections: ibrexafungerp by Scynexis, Inc., fosmanogepix, by Pfizer.
Scynexis’ ibrexafungerp appears active against C. auris and other emerging, drug-resistant pathogens. The FDA recently approved it as a therapy for vaginal yeast infections and it is undergoing Phase III clinical trials against invasive candidiasis in an attempt to keep the infection from spreading.
“Ibreafungerp is structurally different from other echinocandins,” Fernandes says, because it targets a different part of the fungus. “We’re lucky it has activity against C. auris.”
Pfizer’s fosmanogepix is in Phase II clinical trials for patients with invasive fungal infections caused by multiple Candida species. Results are showing significantly better survival rates for people taking fosmanogepix.
Although C. auris does pose a serious threat to healthcare worldwide, scientists try to stay optimistic—because they recognized the problem early enough, they might have solutions in place before the perfect storm hits. “There is a bit of hope,” says Robinson. “BARDA has finally been able to fund the development of new antifungal agents and, hopefully, this year we can get several new classes of antifungals into development.”
Microscopic tardigrades, widely considered to be some of the toughest animals on earth, can survive for decades without oxygen or water and are thought to have lived through a crash-landing on the moon. Also known as water bears, they survive by fully dehydrating and later rehydrating themselves – a feat only a few animals can accomplish. Now scientists are harnessing tardigrades’ talents to make medicines that can be dried and stored at ambient temperatures and later rehydrated for use—instead of being kept refrigerated or frozen.
Many biologics—pharmaceutical products made by using living cells or synthesized from biological sources—require refrigeration, which isn’t always available in many remote locales or places with unreliable electricity. These products include mRNA and other vaccines, monoclonal antibodies and immuno-therapies for cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and other conditions. Cooling is also needed for medicines for blood clotting disorders like hemophilia and for trauma patients.
Formulating biologics to withstand drying and hot temperatures has been the holy grail for pharmaceutical researchers for decades. It’s a hard feat to manage. “Biologic pharmaceuticals are highly efficacious, but many are inherently unstable,” says Thomas Boothby, assistant professor of molecular biology at University of Wyoming. Therefore, during storage and shipping, they must be refrigerated at 2 to 8 degrees Celsius (35 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit). Some must be frozen, typically at -20 degrees Celsius, but sometimes as low -90 degrees Celsius as was the case with the Pfizer Covid vaccine.
For Covid, fewer than 73 percent of the global population received even one dose. The need for refrigerated or frozen handling was partially to blame.
The costly cold chain
The logistics network that ensures those temperature requirements are met from production to administration is called the cold chain. This cold chain network is often unreliable or entirely lacking in remote, rural areas in developing nations that have malfunctioning electrical grids. “Almost all routine vaccines require a cold chain,” says Christopher Fox, senior vice president of formulations at the Access to Advanced Health Institute. But when the power goes out, so does refrigeration, putting refrigerated or frozen medical products at risk. Consequently, the mRNA vaccines developed for Covid-19 and other conditions, as well as more traditional vaccines for cholera, tetanus and other diseases, often can’t be delivered to the most remote parts of the world.
To understand the scope of the challenge, consider this: In the U.S., more than 984 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine have been distributed so far. Each one needed refrigeration that, even in the U.S., proved challenging. Now extrapolate to all vaccines and the entire world. For Covid, fewer than 73 percent of the global population received even one dose. The need for refrigerated or frozen handling was partially to blame.
Globally, the cold chain packaging market is valued at over $15 billion and is expected to exceed $60 billion by 2033.
Freeze-drying, also called lyophilization, which is common for many vaccines, isn’t always an option. Many freeze-dried vaccines still need refrigeration, and even medicines approved for storage at ambient temperatures break down in the heat of sub-Saharan Africa. “Even in a freeze-dried state, biologics often will undergo partial rehydration and dehydration, which can be extremely damaging,” Boothby explains.
The cold chain is also very expensive to maintain. The global pharmaceutical cold chain packaging market is valued at more than $15 billion, and is expected to exceed $60 billion by 2033, according to a report by Future Market Insights. This cost is only expected to grow. According to the consulting company Accenture, the number of medicines that require the cold chain are expected to grow by 48 percent, compared to only 21 percent for non-cold-chain therapies.
Tardigrades to the rescue
Tardigrades are only about a millimeter long – with four legs and claws, and they lumber around like bears, thus their nickname – but could provide a big solution. “Tardigrades are unique in the animal kingdom, in that they’re able to survive a vast array of environmental insults,” says Boothby, the Wyoming professor. “They can be dried out, frozen, heated past the boiling point of water and irradiated at levels that are thousands of times more than you or I could survive.” So, his team is gradually unlocking tardigrades’ survival secrets and applying them to biologic pharmaceuticals to make them withstand both extreme heat and desiccation without losing efficacy.
Boothby’s team is focusing on blood clotting factor VIII, which, as the name implies, causes blood to clot. Currently, Boothby is concentrating on the so-called cytoplasmic abundant heat soluble (CAHS) protein family, which is found only in tardigrades, protecting them when they dry out. “We showed we can desiccate a biologic (blood clotting factor VIII, a key clotting component) in the presence of tardigrade proteins,” he says—without losing any of its effectiveness.
The researchers mixed the tardigrade protein with the blood clotting factor and then dried and rehydrated that substance six times without damaging the latter. This suggests that biologics protected with tardigrade proteins can withstand real-world fluctuations in humidity.
Furthermore, Boothby’s team found that when the blood clotting factor was dried and stabilized with tardigrade proteins, it retained its efficacy at temperatures as high as 95 degrees Celsius. That’s over 200 degrees Fahrenheit, much hotter than the 58 degrees Celsius that the World Meteorological Organization lists as the hottest recorded air temperature on earth. In contrast, without the protein, the blood clotting factor degraded significantly. The team published their findings in the journal Nature in March.
Although tardigrades rarely live more than 2.5 years, they have survived in a desiccated state for up to two decades, according to Animal Diversity Web. This suggests that tardigrades’ CAHS protein can protect biologic pharmaceuticals nearly indefinitely without refrigeration or freezing, which makes it significantly easier to deliver them in locations where refrigeration is unreliable or doesn’t exist.
The tricks of the tardigrades
Besides the CAHS proteins, tardigrades rely on a type of sugar called trehalose and some other protectants. So, rather than drying up, their cells solidify into rigid, glass-like structures. As that happens, viscosity between cells increases, thereby slowing their biological functions so much that they all but stop.
Now Boothby is combining CAHS D, one of the proteins in the CAHS family, with trehalose. He found that CAHS D and trehalose each protected proteins through repeated drying and rehydrating cycles. They also work synergistically, which means that together they might stabilize biologics under a variety of dry storage conditions.
“We’re finding the protective effect is not just additive but actually is synergistic,” he says. “We’re keen to see if something like that also holds true with different protein combinations.” If so, combinations could possibly protect against a variety of conditions.
Before any stabilization technology for biologics can be commercialized, it first must be approved by the appropriate regulators. In the U.S., that’s the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Developing a new formulation would require clinical testing and vast numbers of participants. So existing vaccines and biologics likely won’t be re-formulated for dry storage. “Many were developed decades ago,” says Fox. “They‘re not going to be reformulated into thermo-stable vaccines overnight,” if ever, he predicts.
Extending stability outside the cold chain, even for a few days, can have profound health, environmental and economic benefits.
Instead, this technology is most likely to be used for the new products and formulations that are just being created. New and improved vaccines will be the first to benefit. Good candidates include the plethora of mRNA vaccines, as well as biologic pharmaceuticals for neglected diseases that affect parts of the world where reliable cold chain is difficult to maintain, Boothby says. Some examples include new, more effective vaccines for malaria and for pathogenic Escherichia coli, which causes diarrhea.
Tallying up the benefits
Extending stability outside the cold chain, even for a few days, can have profound health, environmental and economic benefits. For instance, MenAfriVac, a meningitis vaccine (without tardigrade proteins) developed for sub-Saharan Africa, can be stored at up to 40 degrees Celsius for four days before administration. “If you have a few days where you don’t need to maintain the cold chain, it’s easier to transport vaccines to remote areas,” Fox says, where refrigeration does not exist or is not reliable.
Better health is an obvious benefit. MenAfriVac reduced suspected meningitis cases by 57 percent in the overall population and more than 99 percent among vaccinated individuals.
Lower healthcare costs are another benefit. One study done in Togo found that the cold chain-related costs increased the per dose vaccine price up to 11-fold. The ability to ship the vaccines using the usual cold chain, but transporting them at ambient temperatures for the final few days cut the cost in half.
There are environmental benefits, too, such as reducing fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Cold chain transports consume 20 percent more fuel than non-cold chain shipping, due to refrigeration equipment, according to the International Trade Administration.
A study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University compared the greenhouse gas emissions of the new, oral Vaxart COVID-19 vaccine (which doesn’t require refrigeration) with four intramuscular vaccines (which require refrigeration or freezing). While the Vaxart vaccine is still in clinical trials, the study found that “up to 82.25 million kilograms of CO2 could be averted by using oral vaccines in the U.S. alone.” That is akin to taking 17,700 vehicles out of service for one year.
Although tardigrades’ protective proteins won’t be a component of biologic pharmaceutics for several years, scientists are proving that this approach is viable. They are hopeful that a day will come when vaccines and biologics can be delivered anywhere in the world without needing refrigerators or freezers en route.