Funding boost for DNA barcoding in South Africa
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Funding boost for DNA barcoding in South Africa
Scientists and botanists at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) will benefit from a $2.2 million grant to fortify the research, innovation and advancement capacity of DNA barcoding projects in South Africa. 

The cash boost from Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) to the International Barcode of Life project (iBOL) will enable researchers in five developing countries such as Argentina, Costa Rica, Kenya, Peru and South Africa, to play key roles in iBOL.

Professor Michele van der Bank, Africa’s representative for the new TreeBOL initiative, a DNA barcoding project aiming to barcode all the trees of the world and the lead investigator of the UJ’s DNA project and, says that the support from IRDC and iBOL will add to the development of the DNA barcoding project. “This is an urgent and dynamic project that will make an essential contribution to the advancement of science not only in South Africa but across our borders, as well as providing an invaluable resource for environmental conservation and sustainable management of natural resources,” says Prof van der Bank.  

The South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB), a National Facility of the National Research Foundation will manage the project. SAIAB will go into agreements with the Centre for Invasion Biology, University of Stellenbosch; BIOBANK SA at the National Zoological Gardens and the UJ’s Department of Botany & Plant Biotechnology, to achieve the two principal objectives of the project. The first objective is to increase the number of South African species in the Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLD) database, concentrating on species with major impacts on agriculture, forestry, fisheries and human health; and the second objective is to train young researchers in the use of DNA barcoding.

 BOLD supports the organisation and analysis of barcode data and provides a repository for barcode records, storing specimen data and images as well as sequences and trace files.  “It is now one of the most important data systems for life on earth, and is being used by a wide range of researchers for scientific research assessing biodiversity interactions in critical areas,” says Prof Paul Skelton from SAIAB.  “The participation of South Africa in building this library is critical to ensure that African biodiversity is represented in the world’s largest biodiversity genomics project.”

 Four postdoctoral fellows will be appointed to play lead roles in overseeing barcoding activities on several vertebrate groups (amphibians, birds, mammals, reptiles), important arthropod species (pollinators, or agricultural and forestry pests) and marine life with a particular focus on fish and plants.

Several DNA barcoding projects are already underway in South Africa:

·         Prof. van der Bank’s barcode research programme on plants has amassed barcode records for more than 80 percent of the known tree species in Southern Africa. Her laboratory is also involved in barcode work on grasses, medicinal plants, cycads and on the flora of Kruger National Park.

·         Drs Ernst Swartz and Monica Mwale at SAIAB and Professor Herman van der Bank at the Department of Zoology (UJ) are involved in an effort to build a comprehensive barcode library for the global fish fauna.

·         The Department of Agriculture has supported projects on scale insects, spiders and pollinators at the Plant Protection Research Institute.

·         University-based researchers lead several other barcode projects including Collembola at the Centre for Invasion Biology (University of Stellenbosch), seaweeds at the Department of Botany (University of Cape Town), ants at the Iziko Museum (Cape Town) marine mollusks at the Department of Zoology (UJ). 

iBOL Scientific Director Paul Hebert said that the IDRC project would also pay for researchers from neighboring nations to attend training sessions in South Africa, helping to energize understanding of DNA barcoding at a regional level. “We also plan research activities that will build global understanding of the contributions that DNA barcoding can make to ‘Access and Benefits Sharing’ under the Convention on Biological Diversity,” said Hebert.

The International Barcode of Life (iBOL) project is a Canadian-led research alliance, which spans 26 countries and brings together hundreds of leading scientists in the task of collecting specimens, obtaining their DNA barcode records and building an informatics platform to store and share the information for use in species identification and discovery. By 2015, iBOL participants will have gathered DNA barcode records for five million specimens representing 500,000 species, delivering a highly effective identification system for species commonly encountered by humanity and laying the foundation for subsequent progress towards a barcode reference library.

Click here to watch a documentary on the project

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