Research team manages to sequence plant DNA in a field

21 Aug 2017

The set-up for the on-site genome sequencing in Snowdonia National Park. Image: Alex Papadopolous

Showing just how fast our understanding of genetics is advancing, a team of researchers has sequenced plant DNA in a field in just a few hours.

At the beginning of this century, sequencing the human genome was not only a time-consuming and laborious task, but also a vastly expensive process, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

It shows how far we have come that just 17 years later, a team of researchers has managed to sequence the entire genome of a plant using a portable testing kit in a field in a matter of hours.

Future Human

In a paper published to Scientific Reports, the team from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew revealed that it used a portable DNA sequencer – called the MinION – to analyse plant species in Snowdonia National Park.

What a few hours produces

One of the successes achieved during its demonstration of the technology was the identification of two innocuous white flowers – Arabidopsis thaliana and Arabidopsis lyrata ssp petraea – by sequencing random parts of the plants’ genomes rather than targeting specific pieces of DNA, as is usually the case.

The researchers then compared the new data to a freely available database of reference genome sequences to make their identification.

Kew scientist and co-author of the paper, Joe Parker, said: “This research proves that we can now rapidly read the DNA sequence of an organism to identify it with minimum equipment. Rapidly reading DNA anywhere, at will, should become a routine step in many research fields.

“Despite hundreds of years of taxonomic research, it is still not always easy to work out which species a plant belongs to just by looking at it. Few people could correctly identify all the species in their own gardens.”

Important for conservation

This is not the first time that MinION technology developed by Oxford Nanopore Technologies has been used outside of the lab. Last year, NASA’s NEEMO mission sequenced DNA underwater for the first time ever, with help from Irish researcher Marc Ó Gríofa.

It has even been tested in more extreme environments, such as Antarctica and aboard the International Space Station.

Speaking specifically about plant research, another co-author on this recent paper, Alexander Papadopulos, said the speed and portability of the latest sequencing equipment is vital to protect the environment.

“Accurate species identification is essential for evolutionary and ecological research in the fight against wildlife crime, and for monitoring rare and threatened species,” Papadopulos said.

“Identifying species correctly based on what they look like can be really tricky, and needs expertise to be done well.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic