May 3, 2008

Global Effort to Capture DNA of Every Tree Species

With a grant of nearly $600,000, the New York Botanical Garden is coordinating a new project. The garden is best known as a cultural institution with a conservatory of beautiful plants and out-of-this-world orchid shows, but it is actually dedicated to researching the plant world "“ just as it was when it was founded by Nathaniel and Elizabeth Britton. The New York Botanical Garden just happens to be beautiful, but its main purpose is to house one of the most active research programs in plant sciences in the entire world, according to James Miller, the vice president for science and dean of the garden.

This new project is quite an undertaking: researchers from the garden along with 40 other participating organizations will soon be leading a global effort to obtain DNA from thousands of species of trees worldwide. The project, known as TreeBOL, or Tree Barcode of Life, will be a two year endeavor to catalog genetic material from trees around the world.

This week participants from various countries are in a meeting in the garden where they will establish an order of operations for how the two-year mission to catalogue this biodiversity will proceed. People from India, South Africa, and the United States will joint together in this massive undertaking, in which they may attempt to identify as many as 100,000 species of trees.

With this project, DNA will be taken and used as a barcode. When the DNA is scanned, the order of the four basic building blocks of DNA will identify the species. In order for this to work, the same section of DNA must be used in each sample that is obtained so that cross-species comparisons can be made. This week's meeting will help determine which section will be used.

The database that will come from this project will not only help identify many species, but it will also reveal where they are located and if they are endangered. Damon Little, assistant curator of bioinformatics at the Botanical Garden, says that these results are crucial for protecting and conserving the environment as growth occurs.

Little, who is also coordinating the project, said, "If you don't know what you're potentially destroying, how can you know if it's important or not?  We know so little about the natural world, when it comes down to it, even though we've been working on it for hundreds of years."

During this lengthy project, Little desires headway in some specific areas, such as endangered tree species and the flora of the Northeastern U.S., Malaysia, India, and South Africa. Research in the garden has greatly expanded since its beginnings and its focus on the Caribbean. There are currently also projects in South America, Micronesia, and Southeast Asia.

Thomas Lovejoy, president of the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment in Washington and a member of the garden's board says of the garden: "It is some of the best and brightest botanical science done anywhere in the world."


On the Net:

New York Botanical Garden: http://www.nybg.org