Students Use New Technique to Classify Organisms

Several UCSD biology students have made innovative discoveries in the field of insect taxonomy by participating in distinctive, hands-on research offered through the San Diego Biodiversity Project.

Rather than focusing on indoor, lab-based research, the project, which has been receiving funding from the National Science Foundation since 2012, gives undergraduate students the opportunity to contribute to the scientific community by immersing them in the uplands of the Scripps Coastal Reserve.

Heather Henter, the academic coordinator of the UCSD Natural Reserve System, told the UCSD Guardian that the project enables students to incorporate research in their curriculum.

“The focus of the San Diego Biodiversity Project is to get undergraduate students involved in original research as part of their coursework,” Henter said. “The scientific goal is to document biodiversity … [which] is really important because most biodiversity on the planet is still unknown.”

The project focuses on identifying and classifying different organisms based on their genetic codes through a relatively new scientific technique known as DNA barcoding.

This method of genetic analysis examines a short section of DNA from a standardized region of an organism’s genome to distinguish its species from millions of others and, according to Henter, is significantly simpler than the older methods of analysis.

“Previously, species were identified by morphology, which required tremendous expertise, or by much more complicated genetics,” Henter said. “DNA barcoding has revolutionized the study of biodiversity because it allows a nonexpert to differentiate species.”

The data from the students’ research are submitted to the Barcode of Life Database, a taxonomic library that contains almost two million barcodes from over 160,000 species of animals, plants and fungi that have been discovered by scientists around the world.

Henter describes the project as an innovative chance for students to conduct scientific research that contributes to the global scientific community.

“Rather than performing some rote experiment that thousands of other students have done over the years, these students are actively adding to the sum of our knowledge of the world,” Henter said in a Nov. 20 press release. “By assembling, analyzing and publishing the DNA barcodes they find in the field, our students participate as full citizens in the community of scientists.”

Students who are interested in the program can apply as interns or receive academic credit for their work by enrolling in one of the two San Diego Biodiversity Project courses currently offered at UCSD: Recombinant DNA Techniques, listed as BIMM 101, and Ecology Laboratory, listed as BIEB 121. After consulting faculty or enrolling, students have the option to conduct independent research projects.

According to Henter, the success of the project can be partially attributed to the positive attitude of its participants.

“It’s a rare opportunity for undergraduates, and we’re proud of the enthusiasm and the professionalism they bring to the project,” Henter said.

Henter discussed biodiversity as a pressing issue, explaining that over 70 percent of arthropod species remain unknown, and the identification of these organisms would provide critical information for the conservation of rare species.

According to the project’s website, the state of California has more rare species than any other state in the country. Henter added that the city of San Diego is particularly rich in rare species.

“We are focusing on our local reserve, the Scripps Coastal Reserve,” Henter said. “San Diego is part of a ‘biodiversity hotspot,’ a place with a large number of both endemic and endangered species, thus documenting [how] biodiversity is particularly important here.”

The project’s outdoor barcoding laboratory is located less than a mile west of campus and is one of four natural reserves managed by UCSD.

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