Eyes That Kill (Barcode Book 4)

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In plants, the DNA that does the trick is typically taken from chloroplasts — the cell machinery, derived from organelles called proplastids, that turns carbon dioxide and water into sugar and oxygen. DNA from chloroplasts and mitochondria also keeps it simple: Unsurprisingly, the plant-derived barcode regions have also been given snappy little monikers and are referred to by those in the know as matK and rbcL.

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It took four years for De Vere and her team to build a reference library containing barcodes for the entire native plant life of Wales. It was the first nation to boast such a resource, completed in But the work built on decades of collecting by amateur enthusiasts and professional scientists alike; the majority of samples came from neatly pressed herbarium vouchers tucked away in the National Museum of Wales.

With multiple specimens required for each species, every voucher was verified by the museum's expert plant taxonomist Dr Tim Rich, before a tiny snippet was removed and its DNA extracted in the lab. Thanks to a process known as PCR polymerase chain reaction , the barcode region of DNA was amplified and its nucleotide sequence determined.

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And, with the data uploaded on to international reference libraries, it's available to anyone. That, says De Vere, is vital: In her own research group, work is progressing on pollen. While pollen doesn't contain chloroplasts, it does contain starch-storing proplastids that bear the DNA necessary for barcoding. By analysing the barcodes from pollen, De Vere and her team hope to provide new insights into a host of biological intrigues, from elucidating the link between plant species and hay fever, to mapping the movements of pollinators such as hoverflies and bees.

Poring over a computer screen in the adjacent laboratory office, PhD student Jenny Hawkins is stuck into another promising avenue of research, the medicinal properties of honey. Manuka, made by bees in New Zealand who harvest their loot from the tea tree, is famed for its antibacterial properties. Hawkins is looking for a UK equivalent, and she's doing it with barcodes. By systematically eliminating the effects of ubiquitous components, her goal is to find correlations between the honey's ability to kill off the hospital-bug MRSA and the plants from which the honey is made — as indicated by the pollen trapped in the sample.

But it's early days, and the barcode data doesn't necessarily tell the whole story. With so many potential applications, it might seem like DNA barcoding is the silver bullet of taxonomy. But while many agree that it is a useful tool for matching samples to species that have already been discovered, its broader value is hotly debated.

It's the same in nature: DNA barcoding only offers us the way to identify species and know absolutely nothing about them that makes them worth knowing in the first place. And when it comes to discovering a new species there are an estimated 10 million yet to be found the waters get even muddier. That may or may not be true, but it is more of a self-fulfilling prophecy than it is science.

Steaming ahead to do just that, De Vere is one of a team of scientists using DNA barcodes to crack down on wildlife trafficking. And in attempting to outfox the authorities, poachers and traffickers are becoming masters of disguise. Plants can be exported as rootlets, as seeds, as leaf cuttings. As executive secretary of the Consortium for the Barcode of Life , based at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, Schindel is leading a team to agree standards and promote the use of barcoding.

He believes it could be a secret weapon for law enforcers, providing salient information without requiring extensive resources. It seems the big guns agree.

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