Scientists at the Imperial
College London’s Department of Life Sciences and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew,
in collaboration with researchers in Costa Rica and South Africa, have
identified a ‘barcode’ gene that can be used to distinguish between the majority
of plant species on Earth.


According to the research team, led by Dr
Vincent Savolainen of the Imperial College London, the gene could lead to new
ways of easily cataloging different types of plants in species-rich areas like
rain forests.

It could also help to protect the world’s plants as they
argue that it may lead to accurate methods for identifying plant ingredients in
powdered substances, such as traditional Chinese medicines, and to help monitor
and prevent the illegal transportation of endangered plant species, they

The researchers found that DNA sequences of the gene matK
differ among plant species but are nearly identical in plants of the same

This means that the matK gene can provide scientists with an
easy way of distinguishing between different plants, even closely related
species that may look the same to the human eye.

The researchers
made this discovery by analyzing the DNA from different plant species. They
found that when one plant species was closely related to another, differences
were usually detected in the matK DNA.

The team carried out two
large-scale field studies: one on the exceptionally diverse species of orchids
found in the tropical forests of Costa Rica, and the other on the trees and
shrubs of the Kruger National Park in South Africa. Dr Savolainen and his
colleagues in the UK worked alongside collaborators from the Universities of
Johannesburg and Costa Rica who played a key role in this new

Using specimens collected from Costa Rica, Dr Savolainen
and colleagues were able to use the matK gene to identify 1,600 species of

In the course of this work, they discovered that what was
previously assumed to be one species of orchid was actually two distinct species
that live on different slopes of the mountains and have differently shaped
flowers adapted for different pollinating insects.

In South Africa,
the team was able to use the matK gene to identify the trees and shrubs of the
Kruger National Park, also well-known for its big game animals.

Savolainen explains that in the long run the aim is to build on the genetic
information his team gathered from Costa Rica and South Africa to create a
genetic database of the matK DNA of as many plant species as possible, so that
samples can be compared to this database and different species accurately

"In the future we’d like to see this idea of reading
plants’ genetic barcodes translated into a portable device that can be taken
into any environment, which can quickly and easily analyze any plant sample’s
matK DNA and compare it to a vast database of information, allowing almost
instantaneous identification," he said.

Although Dr Savolainen
concedes that such technological applications may be some years away from
realization, he says the potential uses of the matK gene are

"There are so many circumstances in which traditional
taxonomic identification of plant species is not practical – whether it be at
ports and airports to check if species are being transported illegally, or
places like Costa Rica where the sheer richness of one group of plants, like
orchids, makes accurate cataloging difficult,” he said.

study appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Via the Times of India