Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Barcode Wales

Image: Wikimedia Commons.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.

No, this has nothing to do with whales (they’re fish-like denizens of the deep, and has probably already been done by some countries under the guise of ‘scientific whaling’ anyway…). Nor is it a strange and unusual instruction to implant microchips into the natives of that principality within the Untied Kingdom. It’s not even a move to standardise the strange garb worn by participants at the National Eisteddfod in Wales; anyway, that would be Bard-coding…  And it is definitely not a way of keeping tabs on the founder of Wikipedia (Mr Assange of WikiLeaks probably does that on our behalf already…). Rather, it is the name of the project – led by Natasha de Vere (National Botanic Garden, Wales), along with Tim Rich (National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, Wales) and Mike Wilkinson (Aberystwyth University, Wales), and a host of volunteers – whose aim is to ‘DNA-barcode’ all of Wales’ native flowering plants. After 3 years that goal has now been achieved. Or, in more technical terms, ‘the 1,143 native flowering plants of Wales now have 5,274 DNA barcodes (3,028 for rbcL and 2,246 for MatK)’, making it the first country to have achieved such a feat. DNA barcoding uses a small section of DNA to act as a unique identifier for that species. The first step is to assemble reference barcodes for the plants that need to be identified; unknown DNA sequences can then be compared to these in order to find out what species they’ve come from. Probably the real significance of the technique is ‘forensic’, in that it can identify species from tiny fragments, different life stages, or from mixtures of samples. Species can be identified from pollen grains, fragments of seeds or roots, wood, faecal samples, stomach contents or environmental samples collected from the air, soil or water. Ironically, vital to the establishment of DNA barcodes is correctly identified source material in the first place, which means that every reference barcode must have a voucher specimen to verify its identity. So there will still be a need for proper plant ID skills (until entirely replaced by ‘technology’…). Data from this project are submitted to BOLD (the Barcode of Life Data Systems), ‘an online workbench that aids collection, management, analysis, and use of DNA barcodes’. This feat is no doubt a great coup, but, in the ‘good old days’ (and – perversely – if you’ve forgotten them, then you probably are old enough to remember them!) one went out into the field armed with an ID book and studied the whole plants that were there. Nowadays, it seems that’s not good enough (too ‘old-fashioned’?); instead, you need the services of a well-equipped molecular biology lab! Is this system better? Or just designed by agoraphobic, hay-fever-suffering individuals who would really like to be proper – ‘get-your-hands-dirty-in-the-field’ – botanists but aren’t genetically so disposed? I know it’s difficult to remember all the plants and their diagnostic characters when one gets older, but trying to do an ID from first principles helps to keep those highly prized field skills alive (though, arguably, what’s more ‘first principles’ than DNA..?).

Nigel Chaffey

I am a botanist and former Senior Lecturer in Botany at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany I contributed the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ - and to Botany One - for almost 10 years. I am now a freelance plant science communicator and Visiting Research Fellow at Bath Spa University. I continue to share my Cuttingsesque items - and appraisals of books with a plant focus - with a plant-curious audience. In that guise my main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way) others about plants and plant-people interactions, and thereby improve humankind's botanical literacy. Happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing - or talking - projects and opportunities.
[ORCID: 0000-0002-4231-9082]

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