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Stellenbosch University PhD student maps genome of critical endangered African wild dog

Christina Meiring graduated with a PhD in Molecular Biology at SU, marking the completion of the first large-scale investigation of the genetic diversity in the African wild dog population of the Kruger National Park Picture: catherine-merlin-zqrDvKRY2gU-unsplash

Christina Meiring graduated with a PhD in Molecular Biology at SU, marking the completion of the first large-scale investigation of the genetic diversity in the African wild dog population of the Kruger National Park Picture: catherine-merlin-zqrDvKRY2gU-unsplash

Published Apr 6, 2022

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Christina Meiring graduated with a PhD in Molecular Biology it marked the completion of the first large-scale investigation of the genetic diversity in the African wild dog population of the Kruger National Park (KNP).

Meiring has been working within the Animal TB Research Group at Stellenbosch University’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences. Her study of the critically endangered African wild dog provides a foundation for future genomic testing to inform conservation management.

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The largest self-sustaining population of African wild dogs in South Africa is in the KNP. Remaining populations are fragmented and only survive due to human intervention.

In an interview, Meiring (26), said she would be continuing her research as a postdoctoral fellow in the Animal TB Research Group and the TB Host Genetic Research Group.

“I thoroughly enjoyed my project, which started in 2018, and I love what I do,” she said, adding that she will be expanding her research into different African wild dog populations in South Africa and Zimbabwe.

During her project, she visited the KNP twice where she saw how wild dogs are sampled.

“I love these creatures. I love watching their behaviour,” she said of the enigmatic wild dogs.

“They are fascinating, unique and charismatic. They are caring, beautiful animals and so loving to their pups. If one wild dog is injured, they will do all they can to help it survive. They are not like other carnivores who kick out a weak member. Their unique coat patterns, the sounds they make and their hunting success is amazing.”

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Meiring was born in Gqeberha and raised in Kirkwood in the Eastern Cape on a citrus farm. Her parents loved nature and the family spent a lot of time in the Addo Elephant National Park during her childhood. “I inherited my father’s love for the outdoors and was always interested in the sciences, biology and wildlife.”

She completed a BSc in human life sciences, followed by honours in genetics before “realizing I was more interested in animals than humans. For my Masters, I looked at animal research, particularly genetics as, while doing my undergraduate studies, I realized I was interested in genetics.

“I have a twin sister, Elizabeth (Libby) who did an MSc in embryology and who works at a fertility clinic in the Netherlands. Being a twin has made me even more interested in genetics.”

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According to Meiring, the survival of African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) has been impacted by human and other conflict, as well as habitat loss and disease.

“The result is a limited number of individual wild dogs that can maintain the genetic pool. These small populations lose genetic diversity and individuals are more likely to breed with close relatives (inbreeding), leading to decreased fitness and limiting their ability to adapt to challenges, such as environmental changes or disease.

“Recently, the infectious disease bovine tuberculosis, caused by Mycobacterium bovis, has caused mortality in wild dogs across South Africa and little is known about how this disease affects this species. Additionally, the assessment of genetic diversity in this species, a crucial component required to support the planning of conservation strategies, has not been done.”

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“A full picture of the genetic makeup of individuals of a population is important, since that would most likely provide the means to conserve the genetic diversity to increase their fitness and adaptability.”

A technique called whole-genome sequencing was used to get the entire genetic code of 71 wild dogs (from blood samples) from the KNP, which allowed for the comparison between individuals.

“We hope this study will provide the foundation to develop genomic profiles which can be used for strategic population management.”

Meiring’s research found that African wild dogs are mostly likely to get infected with bovine TB via ingestion of infected prey.

The findings are important, she said, because “the consequences of an emerging infectious disease on a population with low levels of genome variation may threaten the long-term viability of African wild dogs. This is critical information to consider when planning future conservation actions for this species.”

Meiring’s parents will be cheering her on at her graduation. “They’ve played a major role in my success and have been so supportive and interested in my research. For the past two years during lockdown, I’ve been writing up my PhD on the farm, an ideal setting.

She paid warm tribute to her “most amazing supervisors” – Prof Michele Miller and Prof Marlo Moller and her “mentor and friend” Prof Paul van Helden for his major role in her project.

“I’m so happy to have finished my PhD. It has been a very long and pleasant journey. It will be wonderful to graduate in person.”

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