Rare native plants and mosses to yield DNA fingerprints

The genetic make-up of the iconic Scottish primrose, mosses from the country’s Celtic rainforests and rare plants from some of our highest mountains is to be laid bare in a ground-breaking new project that will act as a launchpad for global plans to sequence the genomes of all life on earth.

The tiny and rare Scottish primrose. Picture: RBGE
The tiny and rare Scottish primrose. Picture: RBGE

The internationally important native plants are among 2,000 across the UK that will have their DNA examined and documented in the first phase of the £9.4 million Darwin Tree of Life (DToL) project.

The initiative, funded by the Wellcome Sanger Institute, will eventually barcode around 8,000 key British species of plants, animals and fungi in the next two and a half years.

Scientists from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) and the University of Edinburgh (UoE) are part of the UK-wide research team.

They say cataloguing the genomes of all Britain’s organisms will provide an unprecedented insight into the evolution of life on earth, while potentially identifying new treatments for diseases or solutions to future food security.

It will also increase understanding of how nature responds and adapts to environmental factors such as climate change, providing useful guidance for conservation.

“The DToL will build the foundations to develop sequencing pipelines and sampling processes on a relatively well-known flora, and from that it can be expanded out to ultimately sequence everything on earth,” said Dr Michelle Hart, who is heading up the RBGE team.

The team’s work during the initial stage of the project will concentrate on important Scottish groups that are rare or of high conservation interest, particularly ferns, mosses, liverworts, lichens and rare flowering plants such as the primrose and twinflower.

She said: “There are 1,000 bryophytes in the British Isles. Our bryophyte flora is an international botanical asset, because of its diversity and the global rarity of some of the habitats and species – such as the snowbeds of the Cairngorm mountains.

“And then there are lichens and mosses from the Atlantic woodlands of the Celtic rainforest – this habitat is unique to Scotland.”

The researchers will have access to the latest DNA-sequencing technology, but will also develop novel methods for analysing specimens.

“To sequence whole genomes it’s crucial we obtain very high-quality DNA extractions from the organisms, in very long unbroken strands”, Dr Hart said.

“This means rethinking many of our techniques. We will explore gentle methodologies for breaking through plant cell walls and extracting their DNA without using harsh physical or chemical procedures.”

RBGE science policy and impact officer Dr Alex Davey added: “By fine-tuning our methodologies on the well-known flora and fauna of the British Isles we will be in an excellent position to extend this work in future to the genomes of lesser-known species from biodiversity hot-spots of the world.

“The DToL is a foundational project, working towards the ultimate goal of sequencing all complex life on earth, as part of the Earth BioGenome project.

“From the small fraction of the earth’s species whose genomes have already been sequenced, enormous advances have been made in knowledge and biomedicine. The DToL takes this to a whole new level.”

Dr Alex Twyford, lecturer in botany at the University of Edinburgh, added: “The Darwin Tree of Life Project will transform our understanding of the British fauna and flora, providing new insights from the level of the gene to the entire ecosystem. The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and the University of Edinburgh will play an important role in collecting and analysing British plants and will use these data to inform our conservation science.”

The Natural History Museum, University of Cambridge, Earlham Institute, EMBL’s European Bioinformatics Institute, Marine Biological Association, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and University of Oxford make up the rest of the DToL team.

All the information collected for DToL will be made publicly available.

Professor Mark Blaxter, leader of the DToL programme at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: “The DToL project will change biology forever, delivering new insights into the numerous animals, plants, fungi and protists that call the British Isles home.”