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Keywords:

  • assay optimization;
  • faecal analysis;
  • gut content analysis;
  • molecular diagnostics;
  • multiplexing;
  • predator–prey interaction

Abstract

Molecular analysis of predation, through polymerase chain reaction amplification of prey remains within the faeces or digestive systems of predators, is a rapidly growing field, impeded by a lack of readily accessible advice on best practice. Here, we review the techniques used to date and provide guidelines accessible to those new to this field or from a different molecular biology background. Optimization begins with field collection, sample preservation, predator dissection and DNA extraction techniques, all designed to ensure good quality, uncontaminated DNA from semidigested samples. The advantages of nuclear vs. mitochondrial DNA as primer targets are reviewed, along with choice of genes and advice on primer design to maximize specificity and detection periods following ingestion of the prey by the predators. Primer and assay optimization are discussed, including cross-amplification tests and calibratory feeding experiments. Once primers have been made, the screening of field samples must guard against (through appropriate controls) cross contamination. Multiplex polymerase chain reactions provide a means of screening for many different species simultaneously. We discuss visualization of amplicons on gels, with and without incorporation of fluorescent primers. In more specialized areas, we examine the utility of temperature and denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis to examine responses of predators to prey diversity, and review the potential of quantitative polymerase chain reaction systems to quantify predation. Alternative routes by which prey DNA might get into the guts of a predator (scavenging, secondary predation) are highlighted. We look ahead to new technologies, including microarrays and pyrosequencing, which might one day be applied to this field.