Uncovering South Africa’s Natural Riches

2010 Toyota Enviro Outreach and International Barcode of Life (iBOL) will document life in biodiversity hotspots.

A fleet of Toyota (10 Toyota Hilux pickups) carrying South African and Canadian researchers will set out from the University of Johannesburg September 20 on a 17-day expedition to document South Africa’s animal and plant species.

Although South Africa’s biodiversity is a priceless resource, vital to human well-being and planetary health, scientists have still not catalogued most species. For instance, 50,000 species of insects have been recorded but an estimated 50,000 more have yet to be described.

In an attempt to bridge this gap, the Toyota Enviro Outreach Team (under the expert guidance of Gerhard and Elmarie Groenewald from Klipbokkop Mountain Reserve) together with scientists and students from the University of Johannesburg, University of Guelph (Canada), Cape Nature and SANPARKS will mark the International Year of Biodiversity with a 17-day expedition to collect plant and animal specimens for DNA barcoding.

This project, which aims to safeguard our natural wealth and reduce biodiversity loss, is part of an effort called the International Barcode of Life (iBOL) project, the biggest biodiversity genomics initiative ever undertaken. Led by a team of Canadian scientists, the project’s goal is to assemble a DNA barcode reference library for all life on Earth.
DNA barcoding utilizes sequence diversity in a standardized gene region to identify species and discover new ones. Because this technique works on minute amounts of tissue, it can even be used on fragments of plant and animal material that would be difficult to identify using traditional morphological methods.

South Africa has undertaken to barcode 20,000 specimens by April 2011 and a further 40,000 specimens by April 2013. The benefits of this ambitious work program will be enormous. Applications of the DNA barcode identification system include curbing the illegal trade of endangered species, controlling pests and vectors of disease, identifying invasive and poisonous organisms, as well as fragmentary material in forensic investigations. However, the main application will be to assess species diversity in the world’s biodiversity hotspots where a shortage of specialist skills hampers conservation efforts.

The Toyota Enviro Outreach initiative will start on September 20 at the Klipbokkop Mountain Reserve and will run until October 6. During their travels, the research team will work in three of the world’s 34 global biodiversity hotspots – the Succulent Karoo, the Cape Floristic Region and Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany.

The goal is to collect specimens from a broad range of taxa and to produce DNA barcode records for all of them. These barcode sequences will be uploaded on the Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLD), an online informatics platform where they will become part of a growing reference library of DNA barcodes for South African plants and animals that is freely available for use by the broader scientific and amateur naturalist communities.
All voucher specimens will be deposited in major national collections where they will be available for examination and in-depth analyses by researchers. The project will also expand the electronic information base on South African biodiversity and facilitate the growth of the National Collecting Programme.

“The importance of South Africa to the iBOL initiative cannot be overstated,” said Paul Hebert, the Scientific Director of the iBOL Consortium. “From the iBOL perspective, it is the ideal combination – a country with vast biodiversity and a community of skilled scientists dedicated to the application of DNA barcoding in species identification”.
“We are immensely grateful to the Toyota Enviro Outreach initiative for its assistance in ensuring that South Africa achieves its barcoding targets.”

According to Prof Kinta Burger, the Dean of Science at the University of Johannesburg, with this expedition, Toyota provides the African Centre for DNA Barcoding at the University of Johannesburg together with its partner institutions the unique opportunity to collect research samples from parts of Africa that are normally inaccessible.

Additional note to Editors:
The International Barcode of Life (iBOL)
project is a Canadian-led research alliance, which spans 26 countries and brings together hundreds of leading scientists in the task of collecting specimens, obtaining their DNA barcode records and building an informatics platform to store and share the information for use in species identification and discovery. By 2015, iBOL participants will gather DNA barcode records for five million specimens representing 500,000 species, delivering a highly effective identification system for species commonly encountered by humanity and laying the foundation for subsequent progress towards a barcode reference library for all life.

Contact Details:

Michelle van der Bank and/or Olivier Maurin
University of Johannesburg
Tel: +27 11 559 3477
Mobile: + 27 (0) 82 837 5567
Email: mvdbank@uj.ac.zaolive.maurin@gmail.com

Gerhard & Elmarie Groenewald
Klipbokkop Mountain Reserve
Mobile: +27 (0) 82 579 4515
Email: elmarie@kbkm.co.za

John Chenery
Director of Communications & Media
International Barcode of Life Consortium (iBOL)
Tel: 1-519-824-4120 ext. 56587
Cell: 1-416-452-6016
Email: jchenery@uoguelph.ca