MÉRIDA, Mexico, Nov 20 (Tierramérica)
Advances made in genetic profiling could be used to fight illegal timber trading, provide authentication of herbal medicines and map entire food chains, according to experts at a conference of the Mexican Academy of Sciences.
“It’s taken four years, but the new science of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) barcoding now has the crucial 'marker' for plants,” said David Schindel, executive secretary of the Consortium for the Barcode of Life (CBOL).
“Biodiversity scientists are using DNA technology to unravel mysteries, much like detectives use it to solve crimes,” Schindel told Tierramérica from Mexico City, where CBOL was co-host of the Nov. 10-12 conference of the Mexican Academy of Sciences with the Biology Institute of the Autonomous National University of Mexico (UNAM).
“This work in Mexico and elsewhere is enormously important,” says Patricia Escalante, chair of the Institute’s zoology department.
“Barcoding is a tool to identify species faster, more cheaply, and more precisely than traditional methods,” Escalante stated in a press release.
DNA is a complex molecule containing all the genetic instructions for any organism to develop. While the DNA of a human is different and more complex than that of a worm, mouse DNA is quite similar to human DNA.
Several years ago, Canada’s Biodiversity Institute of Ontario identified a portion of a gene called “cytochrome c oxidase I” that has proved to be the location of the unique “barcode” for all animal species. Knowing the location each species’ unique barcode now allows scientists to quickly and easily identify them.
In a few years the technology is expected to progress to the point that identifying a species will require little more than taking a tissue sample and using a scanner similar to the barcode scanners used in grocery stores, says Schindel.
While different areas of DNA have been identified that serve as the barcode regions for birds and for insects, plants had remained elusive, in part because there are an estimated 400,000 species of flora.
CBOL scientists can now compile a database of all known plant species with their unique barcodes, which can be utilised as a sort of global reference library.
In the near future, inspectors will be able to take a small sample from raw logs or lumber and determine if it is from illegally harvested trees.