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DNA Barcoding of life: discovering the genetic identity and diversity of life forms

New record of Abudefduf hoefleri in the Mediterranean (Photo by Adriana Vella, CBRG-UoM)),

01 April 2016

There is something in all living things that unites us all, the DNA molecule. This molecule is at the heart of each cell, it organises and guides the activities and needs to sustain life from the single cell to the whole organism. The discovery of this incredible molecule was first identified by Friedrich Miescher in 1869 at the University of Tübingen, a substance he called nuclein, and the double helix structure of DNA was first discovered in 1953 by Watson and Crick at the University of Cambridge.

Little did they know that with the increasing tools that would have developed to understand both human and nonhuman DNA we would have entered an era of transformation where DNA would become central to our everyday life, from diagnosing genetic conditions causing health problems, to changing the DNA to produced genetically modified organisms, to studying the genetic identity of species and their diversity from local to regional to global.

The Conservation Biology Research Group (CBRG-UoM) at the molecular genetics laboratory of the Department of Biology, has been the first molecular genetics research group in Malta to undertake and apply molecular techniques to better understand the genetic identity of species and populations in and around the Maltese Islands. From small invertebrates to the large vertebrates, the members of this research group led by Dr. Adriana Vella, Ph.D (Cambridge), have developed knowledge on this very important aspect of biodiversity. Numerous projects from bees to fish to turtles are subject of research to understand the genetic identity, population genetic diversity, structure and resilience in the face of environmental changes.

This research group has been at the fore in using Next Generation Sequencing on wildlife to study the genome and to design new species specific molecular techniques never studied before. Moreover, apart from DNA barcoding, phylogenetics and phylogeography, CBRG-UoM has been active in studies to discover extensive genetic sequences of unique unstudied species, while exploring the functionality of the various genes. A number of new discoveries including aliens in local waters, such as the latest on the first record of the African Sergeant, Abudefduf hoefleri (Perciformes: Pomacentridae), in the Mediterranean Sea have also been identified through DNA barcoding. This research has been recently published in the peer-reviewed journal, Marine Biodiversity Records.

The diversity of wild species both marine and terrestrial considered by the CBRG-UoM, allows this research group to apply DNA studies to local, regional and global level, where detailed genetics studies of species such as sharks, Bluefin tuna and groupers have been considered beyond Maltese waters. Part of long-term research on Bluefin tuna led by this research group has been also recently been published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Applied Ichthyology which presents original molecular genetics studies on this highly exploited species.

Increasingly this conservation and molecular research laboratory is attracting more students and interns both local and foreign and is now also opening the doors to post-doc research through the recently established Reach High Scholarships – Post doctoral Grants encouraging able scientist to continue to contribute in advancing local scientific knowledge and applications. The CBRG-UoM is therefore advancing further in both technical and environmental fields with many applications in fields related to conservation and genetics. It is doing this by keeping DNA at the heart of its research efforts to better understand nature’s diversity of forms and functions.

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