The earth sciences ministry has asked the Centre for Marine Living Resources and Ecology (CMLRE) at Kochi to start the work on DNA barcoding of marine biodiversity.
DNA barcoding is a method that uses a short genetic marker in an organism’s DNA to identify it as belonging to a particular species. Barcoding a species costs Rs.10,000-15,000.
“We have initiated a scheme for DNA barcoding as part of our efforts under Census of Marine Life to create inventories of biodiversity. We had some meetings and a framework document has been prepared for initiating the project,” V.N. Sanjeevan, director CMLRE, told IANS.
Barcoding initially began with butterflies and fish. It worked well, and attempts have been made to apply this technique to other marine organisms.
In India barcoding of marine organisms began with a hands-on training, the first of its kind in the world, organised three years ago during the Indian Ocean Census of Marine Life (IOCOML). Since then quite a few teams have taken this up in earnest and have come out with gene sequences for about 200 marine organisms from the seas around India.
“Among the several government agencies in India, the Ministry of Earth Sciences has recognised the value of barcoding of marine organisms and is in the process of initiating a national project on this. The Ministry of Agriculture has barcoding projects for freshwater fishes and domesticated animals,” Mohideen Wafar, chairperson IOCOML, told IANS.
Barcoding allows researchers to track changes in the environment due to human influence, pollution and global warming.
“Barcoding also provides advantage in wildlife conservation – even when a protected organism is butchered and beyond visual identification, DNA sequence from a few milligrams of tissue can confirm its identity,” said Wafar.“The best example in India is the case of whale shark. This is a protected species but recently one was caught by some fishermen in Kerala and pieces of its flesh, under a different name, were sold in the market. The wildlife authorities arrested the people and, in the absence of other evidence, could get the confirmation that the meat is indeed that of a whale shark by DNA sequencing,” he added.
Barcoding began in 2006 in India. As of now, the efforts are confined to groups like Annamalai University’s Centre of Advanced Study in Marine Biology and the National Institute of Oceanography in Goa.
“Less than 200 out of the 14,000 species known from Indian seas have been barcoded. This translates to about one percent. Given the number of potential marine species and the difficulties of barcoding some groups, it is difficult to set a time limit. But I would hope that at least 80-90 percent of known marine species get their barcodes in a decade,” said Wafar.
The scientists are also in the process of developing a hand-held barcode reader in which a tissue sample will be placed. Then the instrument automatically extracts the DNA, processes it, sequences it, compares with a set of data already stored in its memory and comes out with identification of the species.
“The year 2010 will be celebrated as the International Year of Biodiversity and that is one key reason the International Barcode of Life (iBOL) Project is scheduled for activation in mid-2010. India plans participation in this project as a regional node together with 25 other nations,” Wafar said.
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