Wales first to pin down plant genes
28 April 2011
Wales has become the first country in the world to map the DNA of all its native plants, using groundbreaking technology known as barcoding.
The team of scientists led by the National Botanic Garden of Wales have spent three years collecting samples of all 1,143 species of native flowering plant, both fresh from the wild and from dried herbarium specimens.
They then sequenced a section of DNA code from each plant. The 'barcodes' generated create a catalogue of unique gene sequences, precisely identifying each species and allowing unknown genetic material to be compared for possible matches. This means plants native to Wales can now be identified from the tiniest fragments, down to a single grain of pollen.
'It's a new take on identifying and classifying plants,' said project leader Dr Natasha de Vere. 'We're creating a database in which the information is exact; the beauty is the range of applications you can use the information for.'
Plant barcodes are immensely useful in a wide number of fields. As well as telling scientists much more about rare plant communities and the effects of factors such as climate change, it allows them to track pollen grains to find out more about why populations of honeybees and other pollinators are falling. The profile of landscapes centuries ago can emerge from identifying plant fragments within the soil profile; and forensic scientists can definitively trace the tiniest speck of plant material at crime scenes.
Wales is one of over 25 countries taking part in the Barcode of Life, a huge worldwide exercise with the eventual aim of DNA barcoding all living things and making them available as a global online resource. The Welsh team's next step is to join forces with other botanic gardens to barcode the remaining 364 native species in the UK, and then start work on thousands of non-native plants introduced within the last 500 years.