“Fingerprinting” all Svalbard plants

“Fingerprinting” all Svalbard plants

Top image: Silverweed (Potentilla pulchella) is a quite common plant in Svalbard and got sampled this summer for future DNA barcoding in Canada. Photo: Kristine Westergaard. 

During the past summer UNIS botanist Inger Greve Alsos and colleagues have collected samples from all the Svalbard plant species. Now these samples will be DNA analysed, or “barcoded” and recorded in an international DNA database. – It is very important that all the plant species in Svalbard are included so they can be incorporated in future studies of biodiversity and taxonomy, Alsos says.

29 October 2009
Text: Eva Therese Jenssen

To identify what species a plant or animal belongs to is quite important. Not only for biologists, but also for society as a whole. For example, two insects might look identical, but are they? One of them could be benign, but the other an agricultural pest that could endanger food production and supplies.

Until recently, biologists have relied mainly on morphological features (form and structure) of an organism for identification. However, two organisms might look the same, but not share the same DNA. So how to create an effective system that can safely identify a plant, insect or animal?

New scientific tool
Over the past few years scientists have been testing the idea that all biological species could be identified using a short gene sequence from a standardized position in the genome (i.e. the entirety of an organism’s hereditary information). In other words, a “DNA barcode”, not unlike the barcode you find on products in the supermarket.

DNA barcoding is a new technique that uses a short DNA sequence from a standardized and agreed-upon position in the genome for species-level identification. DNA barcode sequences are very short relative to the entire genome and they can be obtained reasonably quickly and cheaply, making it possible to identify species with high confidence.

In 2003, the DNA barcoding initiative was born at the University of Guelph in Canada. Since then, the Barcode of Life Initiative (BOLI) has attracted international participation. The Barcode of Life Data System (BOLD), an online data management system maintaining barcode records, is also operating out of Canada. BOLD is an open system and available to all with an interest in biology and species identification.

DNA fingerprint of all plant species in Svalbard
Botanist and associate professor at UNIS, Inger Greve Alsos, have together with colleague Professor Reidar Elven and PhD students Eike Müller and Kristine Westergaard, collected 235 leaf samples from Svalbard plants for DNA barcoding analysis.

– There are still many vascular species in Svalbard that we need more knowledge on to define the species boundaries properly. Also, by making the DNA barcodes available we will ensure that much more knowledge is gained on the Svalbard flora in the future as they are likely to be included in studies on taxonomy, evolution and environmental barcoding Alsos says.

Alsos and her colleagues collected the samples during excursions on the AB-326 Arctic Plant Ecology course this summer, but also during fieldwork in Isfjorden and Bockfjorden in connection to the project on the red-listed vascular plants in Svalbard, which is funded by the Svalbard Environmental Protection Fund.

– The sampling in Bockfjorden was very important, because there is a high concentration of rare plant species in that area, Alsos says.

The scientists have collected 1-3 samples of each of the approximately 165 vascular plant species found in Svalbard today. In addition to their own samples, the scientists have gotten additional plant material from the herbariums at the universities in Oslo, Trondheim and Tromsø.

– With the herbarium additions, we have gotten plant material from all of the Svalbard flora, and we are now shipping 285 samples to Guelph for DNA barcoding analysis, Alsos says.

Colleagues in Guelph do a parallel study on arctic plant species at Churchill, and the data will be compared.

It is expected that all the Svalbard species will be DNA barcoded and incorporated in the BOLD data system during spring 2010, which will mark a new era of botanical research in Svalbard.

Svalbard plant sample

The plant samples are carefully placed in special containers for their journey to Canada and DNA barcoding. Photo: Eva Therese Jenssen/UNIS.

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