REFLECTIONS FROM A DNA BARCODING COURSE IN NORWAY – FROM SEQUENCES TO SPECIES

The Norwegian Research School on Biosystematics (ForBio) and the Swedish Taxonomy Initiative (STI) organized a DNA barcoding course welcoming 16 university students from 10 nations to the scenic outer coastline of Central Norway.

Students and teachers attending the course DNA barcoding – from sequences to species.

PHOTO CREDIT: Thomas Stur Ekrem

What exactly is DNA barcoding? What are the major challenges with the identification of species using DNA sequences? How can we evaluate the quality of barcode reference libraries? How will international agreements like the Nagoya protocol influence the use of genetic data to assess and monitor biodiversity? These are a few of the questions that were explored during the recent DNA barcoding course at Sletvik Field Station near Trondheim, Norway.

The landscape around Sletvik Field Station
PHOTO CREDIT: Torbjørn Ekrem

The Norwegian Research School on Biosystematics (ForBio) and the Swedish Taxonomy Initiative (STI) organized the course welcoming 16 university students from 10 nations to the scenic outer coastline of Central Norway. The students came from universities in Norway and Sweden, and one even travelled all the way from Mozambique. The course was taught and organized by Rakel Blaalid, Norwegian Institute of Nature Research; Filipe O. Costa, CBMA, University of Minho; Torbjørn Ekrem, NTNU University Museum; Galina Gusarova, The Arctic University Museum of Norway; Malin Strand, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences; and Elisabeth Stur, NTNU University Museum.

Primarily aimed at PhD students and early career researchers, while still open to nature managers and MSc students, the course focused on increasing the in-depth knowledge of molecular techniques for identification of species. The packed program included four days of lectures, practical exercises and seminars and concluded on day five with a three-hour exam, rewarding students with two European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) credits if they passed. In order to meet the requirements by some universities’ PhD program, an additional ECTS credit was offered to students that opted for a home assignment after the course.

Even the teabags took active participation in the course.
PHOTO CREDIT: Torbjørn Ekrem

The Sletvik Field Station run by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology was a marvellous and very practical setting for the course with lots of space, nice lecture rooms and a large kitchen where instructors and students prepared meals together and socialized.

The teachers were impressed by the students’ efforts and active participation. We hope everyone had a good experience and gathered useful knowledge for their current and future careers!

Daniel Abiriga, Katharina Bading and Misganaw Gessese preparing homemade pizza for 24 people.
PHOTO CREDIT: Anna Seniczak

Reflections from three participants:

The DNA barcoding course – from sequence to species was really useful for me because although I knew how to clean DNA sequences, I was missing how to do various analyzes in databases such as BOLD. The time spent on each topic was good, but due to poor internet connections, we could have had more time for the practicals. I think that the topics were well covered, and I gained a lot of knowledge on the theory of DNA barcoding and the challenges faced when using barcode sequences to describe new species. The knowledge acquired in this course will help me analyze sequence data for my PhD project on fishes.

A big challenge for African countries, specifically for Mozambique, is the lack of expert taxonomists working with DNA barcoding. Moreover, the whole process of sample processing is still expensive, and many African species do not have sequences in public reference libraries. My next challenge will be to start a small dataset for the species I’m working on. I already have sequences for some, and I only need to check if they fulfill all the requirements to be deposited on BOLD.

Thanks a lot for the opportunity to attend the course. Hope to attend more ForBio courses next year!

Erica Tovela

Museu de Historia Natural, Mozambique

I found the DNA barcoding course very interesting, particularly to a junior researcher like me. Before joining the course, I did not know about the different DNA markers that are widely being used in species delimitation. Through a broad spectrum of experts from different disciplines, e.g., entomology, plant, fungi, and marine invertebrates, we were taken through current applications of DNA barcoding in the various fields. This has greatly enhanced my understanding of DNA barcoding, including its strengths and limitations. Overall, the course was very enlightening, and I would recommend it to fellow junior researchers who employ DNA barcoding in their work.

Daniel Abiriga

PhD student, University of South-Eastern Norway

Tucked away in the fjords of Slettvik, we were a couple dozen scientists discussing the best way to designate barcodes to all of life. What is a species? How do we identify one from another? How different does their DNA need to be to assign this designation? From at least ten different countries and various continents, we (the students) were able to learn from our professors and from each other. Globally, as computing power increases and genetic data becomes easier to sample, DNA barcoding has become more popular. Having a place for systematists—those classifying organisms using a small piece of standardized genetic information—to converge is pretty unique.  At the barcoding course, ForBio brought together researchers from many different silos to explore the intricacies of genetic barcoding as a group.

Personally, I am particularly interested in understanding species composition in soil samples—metabarcoding. I came to this Forbio course with the expectation of understanding a bit better the best practices of barcoding in the field. We discussed phylogeography, practiced tree making with different parameters, went through workflows in different barcoding databases, and learned about cleaning up datasets. More importantly, however, I now have an understanding of how my work will fit a much larger context: of the past, present, future of molecular sequencing. I understand the implications DNA barcoding work on a global scale; I came away with an understanding of why we have the Nagoya Protocol and how it aims to secure access and benefit sharing of genetic resources. Through structured discussions with my classmates and our teachers we explored the consequences of moving taxonomy toward a more molecular basis and what this means in a global context. Thanks, ForBio for a great course! It is not very often you can get groups of scientists like this outside of their office and into such meaningful discussions.

Louisa Durkin

Nordic Academy for Biodiversity Systematics, University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg Global Biodiversity Center, Sweden

Written by

 Elisabeth Stur

Elisabeth Stur

NTNU University Museum

Torbjørn Ekrem

Torbjørn Ekrem

NTNU University Museum

November 11, 2019

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