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How To Barcode A Bluebell

Posted: Wednesday 13th April 2016 by

Bluebells in Lady's Wood

Across our counties, beneath the bare branches, the floors of our woodlands are turning into a blue haze as bluebells begin to bloom. These iconic flowers are familiar to many, but less well-known is that there is more than one species present in the UK. Alongside the British bluebell, is an invasive species from Spain that was introduced in the UK as a garden plant but has since spread to our woodlands.

Volunteers from the Wildlife Trust joined other organisations for a day at the Wellcome Genome Campus to learn more about the field identification and DNA differences between the two bluebell species. 

We began with a trip outdoors to find bluebells, which were photographed and examined using the EpiCollect+ app (available in Google Play and Apple) to answer questions on the various features of the bluebell - including the width of the leaves, the colour of the petals and pollen, the shape of the flowers and how droopy the stalk was.

Spanish bluebells, photo by Peter WalkerWe learnt that all the features must be included during identification as British and Spanish bluebells will breed very easily together to produce hybrids which can exhibit a mixture of the features. 

Our investigation was taken further by collecting part of the bluebell leaf from which we hoped to obtain some DNA. To do so, we first needed to break open the cells within the leaf by using a mini pestle and mortar, followed by removing the unrequired components of the cells. This left only the tiny amount of DNA in the sample tubes to go through a process called PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction). This process copies the very small amount of DNA, over and over again, so that enough DNA is copied for analysis. 

Preparing the DNA, photo by Fiona GilsenanOnce the DNA had been copied, the samples were checked to see if the PCR had worked correctly, a different process called gel electrophoresis. If so, the samples were sent off to another laboratory for the DNA to be analysed. 

We have since had the DNA analysis back, a mixed line of letters that were copied, pasted into and compared to a database to prove if the initial species identification of the bluebell was correct. The only drawback is that the DNA analysis is currently unable to confirm if a bluebell is a hybrid of the two species, but they are hoping to solve this issue. 

Our final results were that the majority of the tested bluebells were the British species, although it is highly likely that there were hybrids hiding in there as the DNA results were incredibly close for a couple of the samples, which happened to be the ones that volunteers identified as hybrids using the app whilst out in the field. 

If you would like to become a bluebell surveyor, it is easy to do so. Download and set up the app on your smartphone, and then find some bluebells!


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