Massive DNA drive to record all life forms

In every plant and animal, there is a unique code – its DNA – and scientists from around the world, including South Africa, are collecting these ciphers in an effort to document and protect Earth’s biodiversity.

The International Barcode of Life is a global initiative “aimed at co-ordinating efforts of people around the world in surveying biological diversity through DNA barcoding”, says Alex Borisenko, the director of international programmes at the University of Guelph’s Biodiversity Institute of Ontario in Canada.

The institute is part of the initiative and, in an article published in 2003, the university’s researchers first showed that it was possible to use a section of DNA to distinguish between species.

Established in 2010, the project now has nearly 30 countries ­collecting standardised DNA ­barcodes from the plants and ­animals in their territories and from neighbouring countries.

In the 250 years since Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus founded the field of taxonomy, scientists have identified and named about 15% of the species on the planet. According to a study published in the scientific journal PlosONE in 2011, there are about 8.7-million multicellular ­species on Earth, give or take 1.3-­million. About 1.2-million of these ­species are known to science.


“Historically, we concentrated on the taxonomical aspect (of species description), the descriptive approach. What we are doing is [turning] analogue [in]to digital,” Borisenko says. “If you picture the entire genomic DNA as the text of a book … we’re looking at the ISBN [International Standard Book Number]. There is a global repository for all the books that are out there, and enables people to identify the name of the book by scanning the ISBN. This is where the term DNA barcoding comes from.”

To date, half-a-million species have been barcoded, the organisation says. This genetic information is stored in the Barcode of Life database (boldsystems.org), which allows researchers and the public to search the database. For example, searching for the terms “South Africa” and “threatened” turns up almost 65 000 records, representing 4 700 species.

South Africa has been involved in this project since 2011. The African Centre for DNA Barcoding, which focuses on plant material and is based at the University of Johannesburg, says: “Southern Africa has the richest temperate flora in the world, with more than 24 000 taxa of 368 families, including more than 10% of the world’s vascular plant flora on less than 2.5% of the Earth’s land surface area.”

However, these databases of genetic material of plants and ­animals are not just for academic purposes. Former science and technology minister Derek Hanekom says: “Knowing the species to which a plant or animal belongs is a core issue in biological sciences … Species identification can also be critically important to our environment, food supply and economy.

“Two insects can appear identical but, while one could be benign the other could be an agricultural pest that could endanger food ­supplies and cause … economic hardships.

“Most species of fish are reasonably easy to tell [apart]. Once they have been processed for sale to ­consumers as fillets or canned ­products they can become nearly indistinguishable. The same is true for many ­endangered species that are traded illegally as food or medicinal ­products,” he says.

Earlier this year, South Africa, through the department of environmental affairs and the South African National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi), became involved in the ­Bar­code of Wildlife project, which is creating a database of endangered animals and plants in the country.

“Illegal traders often strip off all the leaves of such threatened plants, leaving only the trunk, so that authorities would have no clue to identify the species as illegal for trade,” Sanbi says. “This makes prosecution nearly impossible, which, in turn, means that the trafficking of endangered species is still international big business, worth tens of ­billions of dollars every year.”

The DNA reference library “will allow for the accurate identification of threatened plant and animal species, and can be used by government agencies for border inspections and courtroom prosecution”, Sanbi says.

“Barcoding of all species is not feasible,” Hanekom wrote in response to parliamentary questions in 2013. “But priority species are those where identification of species is important for conservation (such as threatened species, indicators for water quality or ecosystem functioning), or for the national economy (such as agricultural pests, traded plants and animals), or for human health (disease vectors, poisonous plants and animals, medicinal plants). There are about 20 000 species that all fit into these categories.”

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

How protecting nature can protect us

The Covid-19 pandemic has hit the tourism industry hard, making it evident that the protection of biodiversity requires other forms of protection such as stewardship

Our wonderful wetlands need protection now

Humanity is amazed by our natural world but fails to value its importance to our survival

Africa must tell the rest of the world that we are not their dumping ground

The continent has long received more than its fair share of the world’s toxic waste, endangering the health of people who are exposed to it

Africa’s genetic material is still being misused

Legislation as well as academic research governance bodies have failed to safeguard the rights of participants from Africa in genomics research.

Africa’s path to sustainable prosperity must move in step with environmental action

The African Ministerial Conference on the Environment wraps up in Durban today. It will hopefully provide solutions that will have tangible effects

Repairing ecosystems is costly, but doing nothing is criminal

The international ecological restoration conference takes place in Cape Town next week
Advertising

Sekhukhune’s five-year battle for water back in court

The residents of five villages are calling for the district municipal manager to be arrested

Fees free fall, independent schools close

Parents have lost their jobs or had salaries cut; without state help the schools just can’t survive

Vaccine trial results due in December

If successful, it will then have to be manufactured and distributed

White men still rule and earn more

Women and black people occupy only a few seats at the JSE table, the latest PwC report has found
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday