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Page last updated at 07:00 GMT, Thursday, 7 April 2011 08:00 UK
Wales to DNA 'barcode' plants
By Emma Brennand
Earth News reporter

The rare South Stack Fleawort
Will DNA barcoding help conserve the rare plants of Wales?

Wales is set to be the first country to produce a DNA barcode for every one of its native flowering plants, scientists claim.

The Barcode Wales project will aim to catalogue all 1,143 species of native flowering plant based on each plant's unique gene sequence.

This would mean that the tiniest fragment of leaf or pollen grain could be used to identify any plant in Wales.

It would also allow scientists to better understand the plants' genetics.

The information will help biologists to track the status of pollinating insects, such as bees.

And the database itself could be used to test the authenticity of Welsh products, including honey, and help identify plant fragments in forensic examinations.

Diagram of DNA barcode sequence.
Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) barcoding utilises small sections of DNA to act as unique identifier for a species, like a barcode
To create a barcode, plants are identified, sampled and the DNA extracted
A process called polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is used to amplify a "barcode region" of this DNA code
The amplified section is then sequenced to identify the order of portions of DNA called nucleotides; this is the barcode
Finished barcodes are stored in the international Barcode of Life Database (Bold)

Dr Natasha de Vere from the National Botanic Garden of Wales is leading the study along with her colleagues, Dr Tim Rich from the National Museum of Wales, and Professor Mike Wilkinson from Aberystwyth University.

The team is taking on the substantial task of collecting samples from every species of Welsh flora.

Using a combination of freshly picked plants and dried specimens housed in the National Museum Wales collections, they have gathered examples of all of Wales' "floral heritage".

The scientists have extracted and sequenced a section of the DNA code from each plant.

Dr de Vere explained that, to identify species with DNA barcoding, scientists look specifically at its genes. These are chunks of DNA that code for the protein material that makes up the plant - the plant's "building blocks".

"Because [these segments of] DNA have important functions, they should be the same across all the plants of one species, but they will differ between species," she said.

The unique gene sequences can be used as identifiers or barcodes.

The barcodes can then be compared to other plant barcodes from across the world, held in the international Barcode of Life Database (Bold).

"The patterns in DNA can show how individuals are related to each other, where they have come from and who is reproducing with who," said Dr de Vere.

"Conservation genetics is about looking at the DNA of a species in order to answer questions that will help to conserve it."

Spice of life

The natural differences between individuals of the same species, or genetic variation, allows a species to adapt to different environments.

Spreading Bellflower
Barcoding the spreading bellflower may help answer the debate over its origin

Little to no variation in genes shows that all breeding individuals live in a similar niche environment. So a lack of variation is likely to make a species more vulnerable to changes in climate or in the environment it has adapted to.

The team is able to assess the genetic variation within the Welsh plants by looking at the differences in the areas of DNA that do not contain genes, the non-coding DNA.

These regions vary within a species, giving each individual a unique profile.

"We are currently working on the spreading bellflower, a critically endangered plant that has declined throughout Wales," explained Dr de Vere.

"We are looking at the DNA of plants now and comparing them to plants 100 years ago by extracting DNA from herbarium specimens."

By comparing the DNA barcodes of modern day plants with specimens from the Natural History Museum of Wales, the team will be able to determine if plants are losing their genetic variation.

The results of the Barcode Wales project are due to be published this summer; the findings will be used to establish tailored conservation programmes for Welsh plants.

The scientists hope eventually to extend the project to include the rest of the UK.

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