DNA barcoding in Taipei, Part 4
The plant barcoding group meeting here at the end of the 2nd International Barcode of Life Conference in Taipei was as addled with confusion and obfuscation as I had heard it might be. In supreme contrast to animal barcoding working groups (like linkurl:FishBOL),;http://www.the-scientist.
The plant barcoding group meeting here at the end of the 2nd International Barcode of Life Conference in Taipei was as addled with confusion and obfuscation as I had heard it might be. In supreme contrast to animal barcoding working groups (like linkurl:FishBOL),;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/53591/ that are humming along identifying species and thinking about how to attract funding agencies and end users, the plant working group seems to be straining under the linkurl:complexity;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/53597/ of the organisms they seek to catalogue. Plant barcoding needs to employ multiple loci due to the lack of interspecies variability in the portion of the mitochondrial gene, CO1, that serves as the animal barcode, and it is even still unresolved as to where (in the mitochondrial, nuclear, or chloroplast genomes) the most effective plant barcode loci reside. Add this to the fact that some plant taxa, such as linkurl:ferns,;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/22084/ seem not to play nicely by the molecular rules, and you're left with a complicated tangle.
The plant working group reached a tentative agreement on three loci they hope to use as barcodes in plants. The usefulness of these markers, sections of chloroplast genes, needs to be proven in the near future before plant barcoding can truly hit its stride.
After the plant meeting, I spoke with Samantha Gunasekara, superintendent of the linkurl:Sri Lankan customs agency;http://www.customs.gov.lk/crd.asp and head of the agency's biodiversity protection unit. The lone customs agent at the conference, Gunasekara told me a very practical use for DNA barcoding, which he hopes his agency will adopt in the near future. He told me that, by rapidly distinguishing illegal exports from closely related, legitimately transported plant and animal products, the technique could help him nab smugglers attempting to spirit endemic Sri Lankan organisms out of the country.
What, you ask, has he confiscated from these smugglers? Well, linkurl:star tortoises,;http://www.chelonia.org/articles/Geleganscare.htm ornamental fish, linkurl:birds;http://www.info.lk/srilanka/srilankabirds/index.htm for the pet trade, and native ornamental water plants, to name a few. But as I pressed him to tell me the most unusual product he had confiscated, he simply said, "Leopard penises." That's right. linkurl:Leopard;http://www.arkive.org/species/GES/mammals/Panthera_pardus_kotiya/more_info.html penises. Seems as though some cultures claim the dangly bits of those majestic and endangered jungle cats are endowed with medicinal benefits.
Time will only tell if Gunasekara will be successful in convincing his government to adopt DNA barcoding. Rest assured that I (and the leopards of Sri Lanka) will be paying close attention to the situation.