Minimally Invasive Molecular Health Analysis in Elephants
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2008
Ursula Bechert1, DVM, PhD; Sarka Southern2, PhD; Michael Chase3, PhD
1Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR, USA; 2Gaia Medical Institute, San Diego, CA, USA; 3Conservation International, Maun, Botswana


This paper describes the application of a new assay platform called Stress Response Profiling (SRP) to the analysis of health status in elephants. SRP assays use a large biomarker panel as an indicator of chronically perturbed physiologic homeostasis (“chronic stress”),1,2 which is a known predictor of increased morbidity, infertility and mortality rates3-8. SRP assays have a broad-based sensitivity to diverse types of stressors in multiple species of vertebrates.2 A minimally invasive SRP assay is based on skin microsamples obtained using routine biopsy procedures.9 The skin SRP assay was applied to captive African elephants with clinically diagnosed gastrointestinal infections and to healthy wild elephants.10 The elephant health status was classified using a reference database of SR biomarker profiles corresponding to eight species of normal and stressed animals. The biomarker profiles were converted into pathway profiles indicating that the molecular mechanism of the elephant gastrointestinal infections preferentially involved responses to misfolded proteins and DNA lesions. To rapidly and economically screen samples from 70 free-ranging African elephants sampled in Northern Botswana, we used a multiplexed SRP assay called multi-SRP.1,2 Statistical analysis of the multi-SRP scores showed correlations with population density, movements, and human-elephant conflict reports. In summary, this paper documents that SRP and multi-SRP assays are suitable for the elephant skin and relevant to both symptomatic diseases and asymptomatic effects of environmental and anthropogenic stressors. We anticipate that the SRP technology might have a wide range of potential applications in veterinary medicine and ecosystem conservation.

Literature Cited

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2.  Southern, S.O., and G.W. Lilienthal. 2008. New technology for early detection of health threats. Proc. SPIE 69450F.

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7.  Selye, H.A. 1936. Syndrome produced by diverse nocuous agents. Nature. 138:32.

8.  Wilson, J.F., and E.J. Kopitzke 2002. Stress and infertility Curr. Womens Health Rep. 2:194–9.

9.  Lambertsen, R.H. 1994. Nondestructive Markers in Vertebrates. (eds.) Fossi, M.C. and C. Leonzio. CRC Press, New York.

10.  Bechert, U.S., and S.O. Southern. 2002. Monitoring environmental stress in African elephants through molecular analysis of stress activated proteins. Proc. Am. Assoc. Zoo Vet. Annu. Meet. Pp. 269–273.


Speaker Information
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Sarka Southern, PhD
Gaia Medical Institute
San Diego, CA, USA

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