18 May 2008

Arbor DNA

$10/£5 from every shop purchase goes to help build the new Beagle!

Two weeks ago I went to the New York Botanical Garden for a small but international meeting aimed at kick-starting a new project to amass a comprehensive database of short, diagnostic DNA snippets from the world's tree species. The hope is that a complete catalogue these so-called "DNA barcodes" will enable queries of unknown samples of root, wood, twig or leaf against the database. This ability will facilitate high-throughput biodiversity monitoring and environmental forensics, for example, to uncover trade in protected plants.

Similar projects have been underway for a while for various animal groups including birds and fish, but this will be the first major global barcoding "campaign" for plants. The organisational framework of this campaign (called "Tree-BoL" for tree barcode-of-life but also because "bole" is the stem or trunk of a tree ...oh, aren't we botanists extra clever?) is funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which also supports the parent organisation Consortium for the Barcode of Life (CBOL) as well as Encyclopedia of Life (EOL) and Census of Marine Life (COML) among others. Forget the 'P', big biodiversity science is Alfred Sloan's middle name.

The aim of tree-BoL is to 1) build and 2) populate a database of DNA sequences from all of the world's tree species, of which there are about 100,000 (though of course this figure depends on how you define "tree").

At this point our regular readers might detect a snag (hardy har). A while back I wrote about the complex and difficult task of identifying a gene or genes to use for DNA barcoding in plants. So if we don't even know what genes we will be sequencing from all of these trees, isn't this project a bit premature?

Not really, and for two reasons: first, the vast majority of money and effort in a barcoding project goes into collecting, properly identifying/vouchering and extracting DNA from the specimens themselves. The DNA sequencing part is the final and easiest bit. That means that these samples can be collected and held for a while even if the argument about which genes to sequence is still unresolved; second, some real progress was made at this meeting towards agreeing a suite of plant genes for DNA barcoding (a final session at the meeting was devoted to this question, and agreement was reached on pooling all data resources to make a final decision).

The venue for the meeting was entirely appropriate; the NYBG's trees were positively dripping with spring blossom (photo above right). The other perk was that the Darwin's Garden exhibition had just opened, so there was ample reason to sneak away at lunchtime for a stroll around. I also learned that in addition to their beloved public face, NYBG has some world-class scientists ...and science facilities. Their molecular biology laboratory was sah-weet. Shiny new labs with big glass windows looking out over a pond and a whole bunch of mature trees (how fitting). It made me look forward to moving into our new labs in the second phase of the Darwin Centre building at the NHM even more than before.

And if all goes well, when we get there, it'll be full speed ahead producing barcodes for the trees of the UK, Europe and beyond.

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