The Mobile Malaria Project team crossed four countries in a specially converted version of a Land Rover Discovery SUV. They successfully tested the latest portable genetic sequencing technology in remote off-grid locations for the first time – even generating data for their partners while driving.
Led by Dr George Busby, the team worked with local scientists to extract and analyse DNA in remote locations, generating useful genetic data within hours. Scientists usually have to wait weeks for data after obtaining, preparing and dispatching samples to overseas laboratories for analysis.
The 2018 Land Rover Bursary, awarded in partnership with the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), supported the team of three Oxford University researchers on a 7,350km (4,567 mile) trip across Namibia, Zambia, Tanzania and Kenya.
The one-off Discovery was equipped as a mobile genetic sequencing laboratory, making full-use of its 1,137-litre load space with a fridge/freezer to safely store scientific supplies, a bespoke load space configuration system to hold the team’s equipment and an on-board expedition battery. A purpose-built dual sun awning, rescue kit, winch, sand/mud tracks, roof rack and LED night driving lamps completed the list of modifications. In addition, the scientific legwork was done by a series of compact genetic sequencing machines, MinIONs.
Malaria is the third-biggest killing infectious disease in the world and 90 per cent of cases occur in Africa. The distribution of drug resistance in the parasites that cause malaria and insecticide resistance in the mosquitoes that transmit it, varies across the continent, and genetic analysis is one way of providing important information on where resistance lies for local control programmes. Identifying and understanding the most effective insecticides against local mosquito populations, and the most successful treatments against the parasites they carry, are crucial for future efforts to control the spread of malaria.
During the two-month trip, the team demonstrated it is possible to train people to use technology and to generate information about the amount of resistance in a population from genetic data using only the equipment carried with them in the Discovery – proving the value of regional sequencing and that such processes are no longer restricted to large centralised laboratories.