The Centre for African Conservation Ecology, together with Laboratoire d'Ecologie Alpine (LECA) of the Universit√© Joseph Fourier, Grenoble, France, hosted the 4th DNA Metabarcoding School during November, this as part of a joint Protea South Africa/France project. The objective of the school was to train participants in the techniques to collect samples and extract DNA for next generation sequencing, as well as to analyse and interpret the data (sequence reads) that are produced. The focus was on the use of environmental DNA to describe the diet and gut microflora (the microbiome) of herbivores, but many other applications were presented. The school was held at Samara Private Game Reserve (see www.samara.co.za), which not only provided considerable support for the school through substantial discounts, but also served as an excellent venue, as delegates could gain firsthand experience in the field-based aspects of this work. Delegates came from all over the world, including Ethiopia, the Cameroon, South Africa, the USA, France, Switzerland, Sweden, Italy, Czechoslovakia and India.


The course content was broadly based on the objectives and emerging data from the joint NMMU/LECA Protea project describing the diet of all the large herbivores in the Addo Elephant National Park – and the reality of extracting and then analysing these enormous data sets. Presentations on the significance of  diet studies were provided by Prof Graham Kerley and analysing diet data by  Dr Marietjie Landman of ACE, on DNA extraction techniques by Dr Pierre Taberlet (LECA – pictured at DNA extraction bench), bioinformatics  by Drs Eric Coissac and Frederic Boyer (both LECA) and on the microbiome of Addo herbivores by Aurelie Bonin (LECA). These approaches are revolutionizing our ability to ask detailed ecological questions at a previously unheard of scale, ranging from reconstructing of diets of extinct animals, describing ancient ecosystems; to estimating the occurrence of parasites from faecal samples or the occurrence of animals and plants from soil DNA. Developing the skills and capacity to use these opportunities is therefore critically important for South Africa and the NMMU.