Plant Barcodes to Help Quash Illegal Trade of Endangered Species

flower photo

Plant DNA 'barcodes' can help identify plants quickly and easily, without requiring an on-site visual ID from a botanist. Photo by Victoria Porter via

After four years of research, scientists have decided on a standard 'DNA barcode' for identifying plants. It sounds cool, if you like science (which I do), but is it perhaps one of those findings that's great if you're a researcher, but pretty much useless to the rest of the world? Well, no.

According to a BBC article, DNA barcodes can be used to investigate illegal trade of endangered plant species.Dr. Peter Hollingsworth, head of genetics and conservation at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and lead author of a report on the research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, says identification is key to understanding a plant species:

It is not possible to know whether a plant is common or rare, poisonous or edible, being traded legally or illegally, unless it can be identified.

But that's not always easy. Plants don't look the same at every stage of life, and visual identification can be tricky, even for botanists, says co-author Robyn Cowan:

If you are looking at trade in endangered species and you have things that are not flowering, or are just seedlings, it can be incredibly difficult to positively identify the plants.

But the DNA barcode is always there, at every stage of life, so plants can be quickly and easily identified, allowing investigators to build a case against endangered plants traffickers.

A Worldwide Botany Lab
Botanists are few and far between throughout the world, but the beauty of this system is it means they don't have to be on location to ID a plant; instead, a sample (just a tiny piece of the plant) can be sent to a botanist anywhere in the world for the test to be done quickly and efficiently. This process has significant benefits, says Cowan:

This is one way that we will be able to increase our information and understanding of biodiversity and where things are growing around the world.

Another practical application is in health care. The DNA barcode could help test traditional Chinese herbal treatments to make sure "people are getting what they should be getting in terms of medication and active ingredients," Cowan says.

Building the DNA Barcode

The Consortium for the Barcode of Life (CBOL) Plant Working Group--comprised of 52 scientists working in 10 countries--spent four years developing the barcode, which is based on two genetic markers.

Now that the standard is set, the work begins. Scientists hope to develop a plant DNA library. First up: The DNA of the 100,000 tree species throughout the world.

More on Endangered Plant Species:
Welcome Back: Two Species Thought Extinct
Present&Correct; Spells Out ABCs of U.K. Endangered Plants, Animals
Obama Administration Adds Rare Hawaiian Vine to Endangered Species List

Plant Barcodes to Help Quash Illegal Trade of Endangered Species
After four years of research, scientists have decided on a standard 'DNA barcode' for

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