Kew's DNA barcoding is leading the way for unlocking the future use of plant material
The impact of being able to assess plant material by identifying its DNA is helping Kew identify the future use of plant material in commercial products, forensic science and authenticating Chinese medicines.
16 Sep 2009
DNA plant barcoding takes place in Kew's Jodrell Laboratories (Image: James Morley, RBG Kew)
The role of taxonomy in so many uses has got to be sorted out. DNA sequencing will help bring diagnostic services to the fore. The technology is slightly behind but I’ve no doubt that it will catch up with the theory very quicklyProfessor Monique Simmonds, Jodrell Laboratory, Kew
The great thing about working at Kew is that you get to talk to fascinating people on a daily basis. One such person is Professor Monique Simmonds who works in the Jodrell department nestled behind the wall that runs along Kew road.
One of the areas that Monique is interested in is the practical applications of DNA sequencing.
DNA sequencing enables plant scientists to identify plant material by its DNA . This has huge benefits in a number of areas, especially trade, forensics and authenticating Chinese medicines.
It is the area of trade that Monique believes can benefit significantly from increased use of DNA techniques. DNA can reveal so much about the seemingly unremarkable plant material in front of our eyes. If you watch television programmes like Australia’s Border Control then you’ll probably know about CITES, the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna.
HM Revenue & Customs officials are trained in CITES. They help to stop visitors from bringing in unwanted pests, diseases and non-native species into a country.
Most people are aware that ivory is a banned product as are shells and coral. Other items not allowed to be imported include seeds, fruit, plants, and even musical instruments, if they are made from an endangered wood. In the future, DNA technology will help Customs officers quickly and accurately identify endangered flora and fauna.
What is trickier to identify is a plant or plant material or fungi that is posing as an imposter. Could you tell the difference between CITES protected ginseng versus an acceptable one?
This is where DNA testing revels in its application: the ability to reveal the true identity of the specimen presented. Once you’ve identified the species and the substitutes then you can work out the different sequence.
There are much wider implications Monique points out when one looks at the trading in traditional plants used in medicines. For example if we look at the common substitutes for ginseng, some are CITES protected and some are not. Food is another area where DNA testing can come to the fore, for example we can examine star anise using DNA analysis, as this is a commonly substituted product.
On the environmental side, the application of DNA sequencing to discover or clarify areas commonly problematical becomes a powerful tool when used to identify and study fungi. Restoration ecology is a new area of plant science in which scientists are devising ways of analysing and restoring areas of land that have been harmed or destroyed. DNA testing will help identify fungi in the soil. Without fungi many plants are unable to grow.
The plants have close relationships and restoration ecology is an approach whereby you need to bring together the right fungi with the right plant. This important relationship is an exciting area of research and Kew is hoping to be able to appoint another mycologist at Kew who can study this mysterious but crucial area of botany.
Fungi is very difficult to identify because its appearance can be so delicate and web-like, with thin hairs, almost impossible to identify with the naked eye. However, if you get enough of a sample then DNA barcoding will be able to do this analysis accurately.
DNA applications can assist greatly with environmental needs, for taxonomic surveys, for changes in land use and the need for identifying expertise and looking for target species. There are lots of different things that DNA applications can help address even forensic science.
Kew has been able to help the police with many enquiries including the famous torso in the Thames case when food was identified in the victim’s stomach using DNA techniques devised in the Jodrell laboratory at Kew.
In conclusion, there are a variety of ways that DNA testing can be used beneficially. “It is definitely the way of the future” suggests Monique “Just last week myself and colleagues met here at Kew with colleagues from Hong Kong and China because we all want to develop and harness the benefits of DNA technology.”
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