DNA barcoding

Imagine you could identify any plant species from the tiniest fragment of leaf, seed or pollen grain; this is possible using DNA barcoding.

DNA barcoding uses short sections of DNA to identify species. Throughout the world, scientists are working together to DNA barcode all living things.

Wales was the first nation in the world to DNA barcode all of its native flowering plants and conifers, through work led by the National Botanic Garden of Wales. This work provides a resource with huge potential for research into biodiversity conservation and human health, freely available to all researchers via the Barcode of Life Database.

Unknown DNA sequences can be compared to the database in order to find out what plant they have come from. The real importance of this technique is that it can identify species where it was difficult or not possible before: from seed, roots, pollen grains, faecal samples, stomach contents, or environmental samples from the air, soil and water.

DNA barcoding has many potential applications; understanding the habitat requirements of endangered animals by finding out what plants they eat; reconstructing past landscapes by identifying plants from seeds within the soil profile; monitoring the effects of hay fever by identifying pollen in the atmosphere; monitoring and providing evidence for illegal wildlife trafficking; or providing quality control for plant based products such as herbal medicines or honey.

Here at the Garden, we are using DNA barcoding to identify pollen from the bodies of pollinators, finding out; where our honey bees are foraging, which plants hoverflies are visiting and discovering the floral sources of honey.

We are now DNA barcoding the rest of the UK flora and involved in international projects on rainforest ecology.