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Seaweed hotspots, illegal logging, and discovering new species under the desert

More than 450 world experts from 60 countries will converge on Adelaide this week to discuss the importance of DNA "barcoding" - a rapidly growing international initiative to develop a genetic identity tool for all plants and animals on Earth.

The Fourth International Barcode of Life Conference will be held at the University of Adelaide from Wednesday 30 November to Saturday 3 December.

This innovative area, which combines biodiversity science and genomics technologies, has a range of useful applications such as disease and pest identification, rapid environmental survey, and providing a basic understanding of how many species we have on Earth.

This is the first time this major conference is being held in the Southern Hemisphere.

The Chairs of the conference are:

Professor Andrew Lowe, Professor of Plant Conservation Biology at the University of Adelaide and Head of Science at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Professor Lowe is Director of the Australian Centre of Evolutionary Biology and Biodiversity at the University of Adelaide and is a key researcher with the University's Environment Institute;

and Dr David Schindel, Executive Secretary of the Consortium for the Barcode of Life (CBOL).

Here are some stories about University of Adelaide researchers working with DNA barcoding:

Australia, more than ever, is the global biodiversity hotspot for seaweed

Australia holds the world record for the most species of seaweed, and thanks to DNA barcoding, researchers have discovered that the number of seaweed species along the world-famous Great Barrier Reef may be even greater than expected.

"The role of marine macroalgae (known as seaweeds) is equivalent to that of trees in rainforests, hence they are responsible for safeguarding our rich and unique marine biodiversity," says University of Adelaide researcher Dr Fred Gurgel.

Dr Gurgel and his team, in collaboration with the State Herbarium of South Australia and South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI), are genetically barcoding Australia's seaweeds.

"Despite their enormous ecological importance, in most cases the identification of seaweeds is very difficult. In the past, this work has relied on subtle, and often elusive, structural characteristics.

"With the advent of DNA barcoding, we are now developing a standard tool to help in the identification of species, even in the absence of these morphological characteristics," Dr Gurgel says.

Approximately 1000 DNA barcodes for red seaweeds have been generated so far from more than 3800 samples collected from tropical and temperate waters around Australia.

The team is also barcoding the DNA of the green seaweed genus Caulerpa, which contains one of the most invasive seaweed in the world, Caulerpa taxifolia. Unfortunately, this species has been introduced into South Australia and New South Wales.

"Our new DNA barcode database will allow us to rapidly and unequivocally identify new incursions of this noxious species," Dr Gurgel says.

Putting up a strong case against illegal logging

Advances in DNA barcoding are making it harder for illegal loggers to get away with destroying protected rainforests.

Thanks to growing research in this field, individual logs or wood products can now be traced back to the forests where they came from.

"Certification documents for timber can be falsified, but DNA cannot," says Professor Andrew Lowe, Co-Chair of the Fourth International Barcode of Life Conference.

Director of the University of Adelaide's Australian Centre for Evolutionary Biology and Biodiversity, Professor Lowe has led research efforts into DNA barcoding and fingerprinting timber products in conjunction with Singapore based company Double Helix Tracking Technologies who are sponsoring the Tree Barcoding Symposium at the upcoming Conference for the Barcode of Life

"We can use DNA barcoding to identify species, to identify and track individual logs or wood products, and we can verify the region the wood was sourced from.

"The advancement of a range of genetics technologies means that large-scale screening of wood DNA can be done cheaply, routinely, quickly and with a statistical certainty that can be used in a court of law," he says.

Professor Lowe and his colleagues are also applying DNA barcoding to conserve against species extinction and to inform ecosystem restoration programs.

Massive diversity of tiny new species exists in the Australian outback

Australian researchers believe there are at least 3500 new species of invertebrate animals living underground in the harsh, arid conditions of the Aussie outback.

These new species include various insects, small crustaceans, spiders, worms and many others, all living under the desert.

The team - from the University of Adelaide, South Australian Museum and the Western Australian Museum - has embarked on a new research program aimed at documenting the diversity of invertebrates in underground water, caves and micro-caverns across arid and semi-arid Australia.

So far, the team has already discovered more than 1000 new species.

"What we've found is a massive array of new species of invertebrate animals," says team leader Professor Andy Austin, from the Australian Centre for Evolutionary Biology & Biodiversity at the University of Adelaide.

Of the species estimated to occur underground, less than 10% have been formally named. Much of this biodiversity has been discovered, not from using traditional studies examining specimens under a microscope, but rather from sequencing their DNA.

"Once we've developed a 'DNA barcode' or fingerprint for a species, it can be used to identify it from all other species encountered in the same location" Professor Austin says.

"The DNA sequences can also be compared with other subterranean and surface species to provide an estimate of how many species are present, where they are distributed, and how long they have lived underground."

He says that about 14 million years ago, the Australian continent became much drier, resulting in our current arid environment.

"Species that lived in permanent wet habitats either became extinct or took refuge in isolated protected habitats, such as in underground waters and micro-caverns, where they survived and evolved in isolation from each other," Professor Austin says.

"Discovery of this 'new' biodiversity, although exciting scientifically, also has major practical applications in that many of these species are found in areas that are being impacted by mining and pastoral activities. We are currently working with these industries to develop strategies that allow for both profitable commercial activities and conservation of these unique assemblages of life that are found nowhere else on the planet," he says.

The research team includes Dr Michelle Guzik (University of Adelaide), Dr Steve Cooper and Dr Mark Stevens (SA Museum), and Dr Bill Humphreys and Dr Mark Harvey (WA Museum). Their research has been funded by an Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage Grant with Minara Resources Ltd as a major partner.


Contact: Andrew Lowe
University of Adelaide

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