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SOS Rhino : In the News : Current Rhino News :'Fur fingerprints' to tackle illegal trade
 

'Fur fingerprints' to tackle illegal trade

  19:00İ27İNovemberİ02
Exclusive from New Scientist Print Edition

"Fur fingerprints" could one day help stamp out the illegal trade in pelts of endangered species such as ocelots, tigers and fur seals.

At the moment, only expert inspectors can distinguish between the furs of these animals and those that can be traded legally. But a new technique could eventually make identification far quicker and easier, and so help to catch illegal traders.

Developed by Klaus Hollemeyer, an expert in biocatalysis at Saarland University in Germany, the test relies on the combination of amino acids that makes up the protein of a particular animal's fur.

Hollemeyer first treats hair strands with trypsin, a digestive enzyme that strips protein fragments from the strands. These fragments are then fed into a small mass spectrometer which generates a spectrum of the atomic masses present - giving a unique fingerprint.

Horns, feather and scales

Each fur sample needs to soak for two hours in the enzyme. The subsequent analysis takes 80 seconds, although a specialist in mass spectrometry is required to operate the system. Even so, this is still much quicker than today's lab method, which generally involves extracting proteins by soaking samples overnight in highly concentrated urea. This is then followed by another lengthy process called electrophoresis.

At present, the only way customs officers can be certain that a particular fur is illegal is to call in an experienced specialist in furs who can identify it by sight. Now Hollemeyer hopes to automate his technique so that it can be used by customs officers who monitor bulk freight shipments.

Hollemeyer's technique also works for bird feathers, amphibian scales and mammal horns and hooves, he says, as these are made of similar proteins. He expects that imports of protected birds such as certain parrot species might also be monitored by his new system.

Biophysicist Franz Hillenkamp of the University of M¸nster in Germany says that the technique could also be applied in quality control, looking out for counterfeit items being passed off as branded luxuries from non-endangered species.

Charles Choi



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