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Understanding ecosystems, protecting nature

National Museums Scotland's involvement in an initiative aiming to read complete genomes of all species living in Britain and Ireland.

Genomic data are crucial to understand the evolution of the diversity of life, to explore the biology of organisms and ecosystems, to aid conservation efforts and to provide new tools for medicine and biotechnology. The Darwin Tree of Life project (DToL), a collaboration between various universities and institutions, aims to read complete genomes of all species living in Britain and Ireland.

Having a large number of protected areas, Scotland harbours unique flora and fauna. Natural Museums Scotland and NatureScot recently partnered with the DToL for a series of field trips to collect insects and other invertebrates for sequencing in several National Nature Reserves in Scotland, including Beinn Eighe, established in 1951 to protect Caledonian pine forest. 

Looking for aquatic insects

In order to get a complete genome, tissue samples must be frozen in liquid nitrogen as soon as possible, therefore samples have to be processed in an improvised lab immediately after collecting. Specimens collected in malaise traps are sorted into individual wells and DNA is extracted without damaging the specimen itself. Thus, experts could identify insects, and DNA could be used to extract a short sequence of COI gene, which is unique for every species (so-called barcode).


Plates ready for DNA extraction and sequencing

These barcodes could be matched with complete genomes of unidentified DToL species so we would know their scientific names.

After processing, DNA extraction, and sequencing, all voucher specimens collected in Scotland will be transferred to NMS to be kept in permanent collection, as an invaluable resource documenting our biodiversity. Unique areas like Beinn Eighe may become long-term genomic observatories helping us to understand these ecosystems and to protect nature.

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