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Molecular Tools for Biodiversity

As a result of research on the genetic diversity of forest species, it has been possible to develop a new technique for the extraction and identification of plant DNA variants .
The study, conservation and sustainable exploitation of biodiversity resources are major scientific and environmental imperatives. A number of European research teams focusing on five projects supported under the Biotechnology Programme are carrying out productive work in this area and providing users with effective tools to help them understand and manage the rich resources of the animal and vegetable kingdom.


The diversity of living things - or biodiversity - the culmination of a long and prodigious evolutionary process involving the earth's ecosystem, is rapidly dwindling on a global scale. This is the view shared by the majority of scientists, who are also aware that, for the most part, these vast riches remain an unknown quantity. The more biology penetrates the mechanisms of life the more complexities it reveals. Not only is the safeguarding of this natural heritage a moral duty but, in addition, biodiversity represents an irreplaceable capital resource enabling medicine and agriculture, in particular, to tap into hitherto undreamt-of resources.

From the test-tube to the marketplace
Environmental challenges and scientific imperatives on such a scale call for the pooling of knowledge right across the board. This is why some 40 laboratories throughout Europe, both public and industrial, decided to join forces. With the support of the Biotechnology Programme, various teams are focusing on three research projects and two demonstration projects. The primary objective of this work, which covers the entire range of animal and vegetable biodiversity, is to devise rapid, simple and reliable analytical techniques, based on the study of genome variations. "Biodiversity is a problem posed on a large scale," explains Angela Karp, the overall project coordinator. "Participation in a European project enables us to widen our field of action and to grasp this question of scale in an appropriate manner. For instance, through our livestock project, we have been able to collect coordinated sets of genome data on the entire sheep, cattle and goat population of Europe. Similarly, we have a network providing fast and cost-effective sampling and analysis facilities covering oak and pine specimens from forests all over Europe."

This network (called Forest Trees), which is devoted to the study of the genetic diversity of forest species, has enabled us to develop a new technique for extracting and identifying DNA variants in plants. The technology, which was brought on to the market by a company called Qiagen in November 1996, comes in the form of two kits requiring no special training and intended for agricultural laboratories. Known as DNeasy and RNeasy, these kits permit the rapid small-scale isolation of DNA and RNA from fresh, dried or frozen samples of plants or fungi.

An original application for these kits was even found in the area of wine maturation, since they make it possible to identify with certainty the origin of the wood used in the casks. This is important since the organoleptic qualities of the barrels depend heavily on the variety of oak employed; a fine Bordeaux wine cannot be matured in American oak!

"Through our livestock project, we have been able to collect coordinated
sets of genome data on the entire sheep, cattle and goat population of Europe."

Beyond the tools
"The technological development of these new analytical techniques must be accompanied by a better scientific understanding of biodiversity," stresses Angela Karp. "It is not enough to develop the most reliable and the most effective tools. We also need to understand the information they offer us and to learn how to put it to best use." This is why the researchers are working in very close collaboration with, on the one hand, the manufacturers involved in the project, such as Qiagen in Germany or KeyGene in the Netherlands and, on the other hand, with a variety of end-users through two demonstration projects.

The first of these projects is concerned with the use of genetic data banks, while the second focuses on varietal analysis. In the course of the latter project the researchers demonstrated the power of the existing analytical tools by proceeding to identify 1228 varieties of lettuce from the European CGN gene bank (NL).

The link with manufacturers and users is further reinforced through the existence of an industrial platform, the Biology Platform for Biodiversity, set up in 1997 and grouping together a vast array of users (breeders, seed industries, conservation agencies, zoos, botanical gardens, etc.) This is an information and exchange venue where the participants can not only keep continuous track of the research findings but also notify the researchers of their specific concerns and requirements.

Beyond this, the platform also promotes the provision and dissemination of information, with a view to spreading public awareness of the role of biotechnology in the conservation of biodiversity.



Project Title:  
Molecular Tools for Biodiversity


Contract Reference:
BIO4 CT-961189
BIO4 CT-973277
BIO4 CT-960706
BIO4 CT-972062
BIO4 CT 960508
BIO4 CT 960732

CORDIS databaseFor more information on this project,
go to the Cordis database Record 1-2-3-4-5-6