Protecting plant life from illegal trade
In the week of the fifteenth meeting of the conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITIES) in Doha, Kew's Bronwen Davies investigates the application of DNA technology in plant science and conservation. Bronwen talks to Kew's Professor Monique Simmonds about the practical applications of DNA barcoding in the protection of plant species at risk from illegal trade.
30 Mar 2010
Professor Monique Simmonds outside Kew's Jodrell Laboratory
DNA barcoding 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. The impact of being able to identify plant material by its DNA has huge benefits in a number of areas, especially trade.Prof. Monique Simmonds, RBG Kew
One of the great things about working at Kew is that you get to talk to fascinating people on a daily basis.
Professor Monique Simmonds, who works in Kew's Jodrell Laboratory, is one of these people. The Jodrell Laboratory is nestled behind the wall that runs along Kew road and sits next to the Aquatic Garden, at Kew Gardens.
Monique explained that one area of plant science that she is interested in is the sustainable use of plants by people, both existing uses and new ones. Working with her team at Kew, Monique investigates the identification of plants and plant extracts used in products.
Protecting endangered plant species
Plants need to be used sustainably. In some cases over-exploitation is endangering plant species. In today's world, the over-use of many plant species can be driven by the force of commercial markets and trade.
Correct identification is an essential part of monitoring the illegal trade of plants at risk, helping to protect them for our future. Sometimes, if only a part of a plant is traded, such as a root or a bulb, it can be difficult to know exactly from which plant species it was derived.
How Kew is helping to identify plant life at risk
If you watch television programmes like Australia’s Border Control, then you may have heard of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) . CITES is an international agreement between governments across the world, which aims to ensure international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. Kew's Conservation and Policy Section (CAPS) advises and represents the CITES UK Scientific Authority.
Many UK Border Agency officials are trained in CITES and staff at Kew help with this. Our training helps front line officials to spot cases of plant trade in which material from an endangered plant species is being imported without the necessary permits.
Samples of seized plants or plant material are also sent to Kew for further investigation when necessary. Botanists at Kew help identify material and our specialists in wood, in particular, are frequently asked to identify imported timber or parts of products made from wood.
However, as Monique explained, one of the challenges facing UK Border Agency officials and botanists at Kew is identifying illegal material quickly and accurately. Today, identifications can still be time consuming, and they don't always pin down the specimen in question to an individual plant species. This is where Monique sees practical applications for DNA barcoding technology in the future.
Is DNA technology the future?
In theory, DNA technology would enable every plant species on Earth to be identified by sequencing a small piece of its DNA. At present, this technology is confined to scientific research laboratories, like the Jodrell Laboratory at Kew, where it is being tested.
Wrapping up the interview, Monique said, 'DNA is definitely the future. Just recently myself and my colleagues here at Kew, met with our associates from Hong Kong and China because we all want to develop and harness the benefits of DNA technology.'
Over the next month Kew is publishing a collection of articles exploring the future role of DNA technology and its application in plant science and global conservation. Through these articles we will explore how DNA technology is helping us protect threatened plant life and restore habitats around the world.
Next week - How DNA research is playing an important role in helping Kew restore damaged habitats around the world.
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