Unlocking the potential of plant and fungal DNA
Following the announcement of the universal plant DNA barcode late in 2009, scientists at Kew are testing the barcode to see if it can be used to identify plants reliably. If successful, this DNA technology will have wide-ranging applications in discovering, identifying and conserving both plants and fungi.
24 Mar 2010
Fritillaria meleagris at Kew Gardens with part of its DNA barcode
Over the next month Kew is publishing a collection of articles exploring the future role of DNA barcoding and its application in plant science and global conservation. Through these articles we will explore how this technology is helping us to identify plants and fungi, protect threatened species and restore habitats around the world.
What is DNA barcoding?
Most of us are familiar with the barcode label found on the goods we buy in shops, which enables the product to be identified when the barcode is scanned at the checkout. Similarly, a DNA barcode is the chemical sequence of a small section of the DNA of a plant, animal or any living organism that uniquely identifies that species.
The great advantage of DNA barcoding is that an organism can be identified even when it might otherwise not be possible to do so – even by an expert. For example, some plants may be difficult to identify when they are not in flower, or only a part of plant may be available, like a tuber. Similarly, many fungi, such as those that produce the familiar toadstools as ‘fruiting bodies’, otherwise exist as microscopic thread-like structures and are notoriously difficult to identify when they are not producing fruiting bodies.
The quest for a DNA barcode
In an effort to progress the use of DNA technology, scientists around the world formed the Consortium for the Barcode of Life (CBoL). This community of scientists have been focusing their efforts on finding the particular piece of DNA which can act as a barcode, and provide a consistent point of reference across species in each kingdom.
The quest for a DNA barcode is far trickier than it sounds. This is because much of an organism’s DNA varies from one individual to another, so sequences in these parts of the DNA are useless as a barcode to identify the species as a whole. Other DNA sequences do not vary between closely related species, and others do not vary even between distantly related species. As such, these are also useless as barcodes, but are useful in using DNA technology to find out how groups of organisms are related to one another.
Agreeing a DNA barcode for plants and fungi
The barcode for animals was decided upon relatively soon after the technique was announced in 2003. But it has proved rather more difficult to agree the barcode for identifying and classifying plants and fungi. As a result, a Plant Working Group of the Consortium for the Barcode of Life (CBoL) was set up to agree the most effective plant barcode, and Robyn Cowan was Kew’s representative.
Following a period of intensive scientific research and numerous meetings, on 16 November 2009 the executive committee of CBoL approved a barcode for land plants, but they had to recommend two regions of DNA (called rbcL and matK) as the barcode. They further suggested that these barcode sequences should continue to be tested over 18 months, to check reliability. The CBoL are still considering proposals over which fungal DNA sequence is most suitable to use as the universal fungal barcode.
Eventually, all plant and fungal species will have their barcode sequences determined. This is a huge task, so to begin with, smaller projects are being undertaken to test this technology on specific groups of plants and fungi. Scientists at Kew are playing their part; for example the plant universal barcode was recently tested in a group of very unusual moss-like plants called river weeds (family Podostemaceae) that are very difficult to identify when not in flower.
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