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University of Manchester student plays key role in DNA bar-coding Welsh plants

01 Aug 2012

Wales has become the first nation in the world to DNA barcode all its native flowering plants and conifers. Taking part in this pioneering project was an undergraduate student from The University of Manchester, whose contribution was so significant that her work has been published in an international journal.

Helena working on Barcode Wales and Barcode UK
Helena working on Barcode Wales and Barcode UK

Biology student, Helena Davies, has been on placement at the National Botanic Garden of Wales where the ground breaking project, Barcode Wales, has been taking place. Helena quickly became actively involved in the data analysis side; the results of which were recently published in the journal PLoS ONE.

Helena explains: “I came into the project a month or so after I started my placement at the National Botanic Garden of Wales and helped to analyse some of the data included in the paper.”

In fact, staff at the Botanical Gardens were so impressed with Helena’s work that she was given the job of working on the expansion of the DNA bar-coding project across the UK.

Since January Helena has been working on Barcode UK; helping to organize the collection of plants, processing some of the first DNA sequences in the laboratory and developing management systems to record every plant sample used.

Helena says: “It was absolutely fantastic to be so involved in a project with such potential on my year in industry. Being an undergraduate I didn’t think I would be able to contribute to such high impact research, so I feel incredibly lucky to have gained this experience.”

In June, Helena was a named author in a published paper on Barcode Wales, a rare achievement for an undergraduate student.

Helena says: “When I found out that I would be one of the named authors on the paper I was thrilled. Seeing my name and looking at some of the figures that I had directly worked on published within the paper was fantastic. I just feel extremely fortunate and very grateful to have been given the opportunity to work on Barcode Wales.”

All the DNA barcodes assembled by the Barcode Wales project are now freely available on the Barcode of Life Database (BOLD), so they can be used by researchers throughout the world.

It’s hoped the barcodes will assist in the battle against numerous diseases. For example one of the ongoing projects between the Garden and the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences at Cardiff University will DNA barcode honey for drug discovery.

It’s also hoped DNA bar-coding may be able to help scientists combat the crisis facing pollinators like bees and hoverflies which have been dying out at an alarming rate.

Barcode Wales has been led by Dr Natasha de Vere of the National Botanic Garden of Wales with project partners from the National Museum Wales, University of the West of England, Aberystwyth University, Glamorgan University and the Botanical Society of the British Isles, with high performance computing support from HPC Wales.

Dr de Vere explains the importance of the technique: “Wales is now in the unique position of being able to identify plant species from materials which in the past would have been incredibly difficult or impossible. The value of the Barcode Wales project is that we have created a powerful platform for a broad range of research from biodiversity conservation to human health”.

Helena will finish her placement at the Gardens later this month, although the team’s work on Barcode UK will continue. Helena will return to Manchester in September to complete her final year and hopes to do a PHD in plant based research after she graduates.

In fact, Helena says her time at the National Botanic Garden of Wales has changed her life: “Before I did my placement here I had no idea what I wanted to do, although I knew I wanted to stay in science. But I had never even considered plants! This placement has really given me a strong direction and determination to continue in scientific research.”