Most mix-ups happen when plants are passed from one grower to the next without good labeling, Avent said. "But some mix-ups occur when nurseries intentionally change the tags to sell a plant, especially when they have requests for a similar species or cultivar."
"Most nurseries don't have the time or interest to find the proper nomenclature," said Avent. "They are more interested in making money, and in this economy, staying in business."
Since DNA barcoding was first proposed in 2003, the technique has caught on more quickly in animals than plants. A standardized botanical barcode remains elusive partly because of the greater complexity of plant genetics, but also due to ongoing debate over which combination of genes will work reliably for the more than 400,000 species of land plants.
But for those in the business of buying and selling exotic plants, DNA barcoding could help identify harmful or invasive species or prevent the sale of species which are rare or endangered. "This might eventually be able to help prevent people from taking things out of countries illegally," said Pryer.
One of the advantages of the technique is that it can identify species from small amounts of tissue or processed material a bit of leaf, a plank of wood, or an herbal mix that are otherwise impossible to match to the plants they came from, said co-author Michael Windham, curator of vascular plants at the Duke Herbarium.
Some scientists foresee a future in which biologists, customs officials and port inspectors can feed a piece of leaf or root into a handheld DNA scanner, which will then sequence a handful of genetic markers and spit out the species name.
"Just like the tricorder device they used in Star Trek," said Windham. "Spock used it to analyze the min
|Contact: Robin Ann Smith|