Is DNA barcoding child's play? Science education and the utility of DNA barcoding for the discrimination of UK tree species.
We present the findings of a DNA barcoding study of the UK tree flora, implemented as part of an innovative, research-based science education programme called 'Tree School'. The UK tree flora comprises native and introduced species, and is a taxonomically diverse study group for the exploration of the potential and limitations of DNA barcoding. The children participating in the project collected voucher specimens and generated DNA barcode sequences from trees and shrubs found in the grounds and surrounding woodlands of a residential field centre in Dorset, UK. We assessed the potential of rbcL and matK markers for amplification and DNA sequencing success and for species discrimination among the 67 tree and shrub species included in this study. Although we achieved 100% PCR amplification and sequencing success for rbcL and matK, mononucleotide repeats affected sequence quality in matK for some taxonomic groups (e.g. Rosaceae). Species discrimination success ranged from 65% to 71% using tree-based methods to 86% using BLASTN. The occurrence of known hybrids (diploid and polyploid) and their progenitors on the study site reduced the overall species discrimination success for both loci. This study demonstrates that, even in a floristic context, rbcL and matK alone are insufficient for the discrimination of UK tree species, especially where taxonomically complex groups are present. From a science education perspective, DNA barcoding represents a compelling and accessible platform for the engagement of non-experts in ongoing research, providing an opportunity for them to contribute authentic scientific data to an international research campaign.