How can you get a lab in the back of a Land Rover?

Our pitch to our sponsors, the Royal Geographical Society and Jaguar Land Rover, was to ask them to convert an All New Land Rover Discovery in to a mobile genetic sequencing lab. We wanted to attempt to carry all of the equipment and personnel necessary to perform genetic sequencing of malaria parasites and mosquitoes in the field.

Jason’s preliminary diagram of our mobile lab requirements

Standard genetic sequencing machines are big and heavy and could never be satisfactorily carried in the back of a Land Rover. So our ambition would have been out of the question a few years ago. It is only possible now because of the development of mobile genetic sequencing machines, principally by Oxford Nanopore Technologies (ONT). Their main product, the MinION, is no bigger than a mobile phone, and although other equipment is needed to prepare DNA and analyse the data that comes off the machine, the compact, portable nature of the MinION is an opportunity for us to take seqeuencing capability into field locations in Africa.

An Oxford Nanopore Technologies MinION (credit: ONT)

There are many challenges to converting a car into a mobile sequencing lab. Although the sequencing technology is now small an robust, there are a number of other aspects that need to be optimised. For example, DNA must be extracted from samples, which in our case are mosquitoes and human dried blood spots from people with malaria. This requires additional equipment and reagents which we needed to optimise so that they could work with the limited resources we were likely to encounter in the field.

An early run with a portable miniPCR machine.

Working with JLR SVO

For the past 6 months the Mobile Malaria Project Team has been working with JLR’s Special Vehicle Operations team to attempt to modify a Land Rover to contain the necessary equipment to perform our lab work remotely. This included:

  • installing a fridge freezer to keep reagents cool
  • installing a powerful leisure battery to allow us to power and charge our equipment whilst in the field without the need for additional power
  • designing robust cases to keep our equipment safe when in transit
  • attaching awnings to the roof to allow us to work in all weather conditions
  • building an extractable work bench to pull out and work from the field
  • designing a livery to wrap around the outside of the vehicle

Thanks to the SVO team, we will soon have a unique vehicle, into which we have squeezed all of our equipment. All that’s left now is to use it!