CSU Professor Collaborates In Plant DNA Barcode Breakthrough

COLUMBUS, Ga. - Columbus State University Assistant Professor Kevin Burgess is part of an international effort that has standardized a “plant DNA barcode” that will provide the foundation for the widespread use of DNA technologies to identify plant species.

As a result, CSU students are now engaging in research associated with the concept, which is based on using a short standardized region of DNA for identifying species, said Burgess, who is among 52 scientists working in 10 countries on the four-year barcoding study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

Kevin Burgess“The selection of standard barcode regions has been a slow and difficult process because of the complex nature of plant genetics,” said David Schindel, executive secretary of the Washington, D.C-based Consortium for the Barcode of Life, which instigated formation of the plant working group. “Having an agreed-upon barcode region will enable plant barcoding to accelerate rapidly. There are researchers around the world and diverse users of plant identification who are eager to get started.”

The barcode will translate to a massive and easily accessible database for a universal system to identify the world’s biodiversity of about 400,000 different land plants. The scientists reached a consensus to form the barcode from two short stretches of DNA —portions of the genes rbcL and matK.

“The research conducted by Dr. Burgess in the development of a plant barcoding system is both exciting and groundbreaking,” said CSU Science Dean Glenn Stokes. “He and his colleagues have attacked a task that has been standardized for animals but is exponentially more of a challenge with plants because of their genetic diversity.”

For identification purposes, the technique will work on miniscule amounts of tissue and can be used on fragments of plant material. Consequently, the barcode is expected to bolster efforts to identify illegal trade in endangered species and identify invasive organisms, poisonous species and fragmentary material in forensic investigations.

Burgess said the barcode further simplifies the identification process by alleviating the need for flower portions of plants, which are often only available during certain times of the year. Botanists can now use other structures of the plant, such as seeds or roots, for identification purposes.

Potentially, the main application will involve assessing biodiversity hotspots where shortages of specialist skills hamper conservation efforts.

The methodology will be used immediately in global projects such as Tree-BOL, which aims to build the DNA barcodes database for the world’s 100,000 tree species, including many of economic and conservation importance.

Another conservation angle applies to one of Burgess’ student investigations.

Ivan Shoemaker, a CSU graduate student in the environmental science program, is tracking pollinator visitation -- birds, insects and other agents that transfer pollen grains from the male anther to the female stigma. “DNA barcodes have the potential to facilitate plant and pollinator conservation, as well as to aid investigations into many basic questions in pollination ecology,” Shoemaker said. “Recent studies indicate many native pollinators are in decline, and with honeybees also on the verge of collapse, any tool that will help us improve our knowledge of pollinators is extremely valuable.”

Shoemaker, with Burgess, recently presented related their findings on ecological barcoding at an international meeting for the Society for the Study of Evolution at the University of Idaho. The studies were well-received, Burgess said.

Burgess’ biology faculty colleagues John Barone, Katey Sellers and Julie Ballenger are becoming involved in a number of barcoding initiatives spearheaded by Burgess to document local plant diversity. “This is a great opportunity to create databases that can be used not only by ecologists but also by our students in the outdoor classroom environment,” Burgess said. “To this end, we have started to incorporate plant DNA barcoding into both core and senior level courses at CSU where it is being used to teach applied and theoretical concepts in the field of molecular ecology.”

Stokes said such opportunity for CSU students is exceptional. “They will be among the first cadre of scientists who will have the skills necessary to participate in the development of a barcoding catalog for plants that will be used for years to come.”

For example, CSU graduate student Vivian Hutto is using the barcodes to document the medicinal plants of Andros Island, Bahamas, while undergraduate student Nikita Burden is testing the usefulness of DNA barcodes in complex groups of rhododendrons (e.g. azaleas) at Callaway Gardens, 35 miles north of Columbus. Patricia Campbell, another undergraduate researcher, is using DNA barcodes to investigate complex relationships in daffodils in collaboration with the University of Toronto, where Burgess recently completed his post-doctoral research in DNA barcoding with Spencer Barrett, who is internationally respected in the field.

CSU biology professor and department chair Bill Birkhead said Burgess, who has co-authored two additional barcdoing publications this year, has created significant opportunities for CSU students, specifically in introductory biology courses, as well as in senior and graduate courses in conservation genetics. “These students can learn and document local biodiversity and obtain hands-on lab experience with the molecular techniques currently being used in DNA barcoding, while participating in a dynamic and innovative research program.”