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Barcoding the biodiversity of the Norfolk Broads

27 July 2022

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To mark Norfolk Day, we look at a project being undertaken by scientists at Norwich Research Park to explore and record the biodiversity of the Norfolk Broads and why that’s important to its future.

The Earlham Institute, one of the four world-leading institutes at Norwich Research Park, is currently running a public engagement programme to discover the biodiversity on our doorstep here in Norfolk, starting with the Norfolk Broads, which is well known as an area of special ecological interest for nature conservation.

When we talk about biodiversity, we mean all the different kinds of life you’ll find in one area: the variety of animals, plants and fungi including microorganisms like bacteria that make up our natural world. These species and organisms work together in ecosystems, like an intricate web, to maintain balance and support life. Biodiversity is important as it supports everything in nature that we need to survive.

The Norfolk Broads is the UK’s largest protected wetland and of international importance as one of Europe’s finest habitats, with its wealth of hidden biodiversity in the saltmarshes, intertidal mudflats, shallow lakes, fens, drained marshland, wet woodland, relict estuary and coastal dunes.

The Barcoding the Broads programme run by the Earlham Institute is a core part of the pioneering Darwin Tree of Life (DToL) project and is being funded by the Wellcome Trust and UKRI-BBSRC. The DToL aims to sequence the genomes of all eukaryotic organisms in Britain and Ireland – that’s more than 70,000 species of animals, plants, fungi and protists.

Barcoding the Broads aims to help more people conserve the brimming biodiversity of our unique waterways and connect with the local environment, encouraging them to explore the biodiversity in the region and the different species living here. There is also a chance that this work will uncover rare, or even brand new, species. The project focuses on a technique called DNA barcoding where a species of plant, insect or fungus can be identified by extracting and analysing its DNA.

Working closely with the DNA Learning Centre at Cold Spring Harbour, New York, the Earlham Institute has developed a free, full-day workshop to train educational professionals, local teachers, technicians, sixth form students and naturalists in the DNA barcoding process, showing how genomics aids conservation efforts and builds awareness of biodiversity loss. The workshops will help them to incorporate the technique into the secondary school curriculum and other research activities around Norfolk.

Dr Sam Rowe, public engagement officer at the Earlham Institute, said: “Exploring biodiversity in Norfolk means learning more about all the living things we have here in the county – from the seals at Horsey and the rare butterflies on the Broads to the plants and mushrooms in local parks and the tiny pond organisms we can only see with a microscope. This programme will help others to connect with the region’s awe-inspiring nature through our DNA barcoding activities.

“The Barcoding the Broads ‘train-the-trainer’ approach allows participants to transfer the knowledge and skills gained in the workshops through the national curriculum at secondary schools and sixth form, as well as the surveying work conducted by nature groups. This will all help engage young people and the general public in STEMM subjects.

“Ultimately, we’re aiming to empower people to become citizen scientists and provide new opportunities to learn about a huge range of exciting topics in biology and chemistry such as biodiversity, ecology, climate change, bioinformatics and genomics.

“By forming strong links between local educational partners, nature enthusiasts and the UK-wide DToL project, we will give Norfolk a real stake in this important area of research. Local citizen scientists, for example, may identify completely new or rare species through DNA barcoding work. If the data is of high-enough quality, this could directly feed into DToL sequencing efforts over the coming years.”

If you would like to find out more about the Earlham Institute’s Barcoding the Broads project, please use the contact form at www.earlham.ac.uk/barcoding-broads

Image: Dr Sam Rowe delivering one of the educational workshops. Credit: Sasha Stanbridge / Earlham Institute

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