Bio Trails: Identifying Species with DNA Barcoding

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Have you ever wanted to know how many different species of creepy crawlies you can spot in a weekend? ‘Biotrailers’ are doing just that at the Mount Desert Island and Acadia National Park.

“Volunteers will spend five days doing a combination of field work and laboratory-based work to identify invertebrate species associated with a mixed woodland along an altitudinal gradient or an eelgrass habitat in Frenchman’s Bay,” said Dr. Karen James, one of the organisers.

The project, called Bio Trails, relies on DNA barcoding. This technique came to the attention of the scientific community back in 2003, when a group of researchers suggested a new system to identify species using a standardised DNA sequence. The selected sequence is short enough to be sequenced quickly and easily, but long enough to detect differences even between closely related species.

Don’t know your ants from your beetles? Worry not! No prior knowledge is required, and in fact “if anything, the less the better,” added Dr. Karen. “We are interested in assessing how participants benefit, and we expect that the less advance knowledge or understanding a participant has, the more benefit they will get. There will be a lot of time to learn taxonomy and other methods from the experts.”

However, there’s more to it than just identifying species. You can think of it as a ‘2-in-1’ project, as it combines and assesses two rapidly growing fields: Citizen Science and DNA barcoding. Although citizen science can overcome the lack of human resources that plague many research labs, its greatest criticism is whether any data gathered can be trusted. “This is where DNA barcoding can help. DNA barcoding is a global movement to set standards and assemble DNA reference libraries to enable the identification of any specimen based on its DNA alone,” explained Dr. Karen.

Most of the results will find their way into the Bold Systems Database, the DNA barcoding reference library. The rest will be used in ongoing studies about animal habitats. Organisers also intend to collect information about how much participants have learnt for potential publication in social sciences journals.

“Once established,” Dr. Karen concluded, “we intend to expand the model both in Acadia National Park and to other national parks and long-distance trails, paving the way for engaging more citizen scientists in more places to understand, monitor and manage biodiversity in a rapidly changing world.”

Want to collaborate with scientists not only in the field, but also in the lab, collecting, sorting and identifying invertebrates at Acadia National Park and Maine’s Mount Desert Island? Then join the project on 16th-18th and 24th-25th August and 6th-8thand 14th-15th September to learn state-of-the-art genetic techniques to monitor animal species.

For more projects like this and 600+ other citizen science projects, head over to our Project Finder.

Dr. Alex Reis is a freelance science writer, with a particular expertise in the field of biology and genetics. She holds a degree and MSc in Animal Science, topped up with a PhD in Embryology. In a ‘previous life’ as a researcher, she worked in the field of cell and molecular biosciences and published various scientific manuscripts including in Nature. Nowadays, however, she spends most of her time reading and writing science articles for several news outlets. Recent work includes articles published in The Munich Eye, Decoded Science, United Academics Magazine, BitesizeBio and Science NOW. After moving around the UK for a while, she now lives in the Highlands of Scotland. When not working, she can be found trying to get friendly with the ‘locals’, from deer to seals, otters or even sea eagles.

Photo: Karen James

Categories: Animals, Citizen Science, Ecology & Environment, Insects, Nature & Outdoors