And yet another guest post by one of my DNA Barcoding course participants. Martha Mphatso Kalemba is a biodiversity officer responsible for coordination of Invasive Alien Species Management and other biodiversity related areas in the Department of Environmental Affairs in Malawi.
Biodiversity in Malawi just like most countries is in decline. Habitats and ecosystems are being threatened and thousands of species are at risk of extinction. Invasive species are on the rise and genetic erosion is the order of the day. My job as a biodiversity manager is to prevent this from happening. I have to identify approaches and technologies that can assist Malawi to preserve and conserve existing biodiversity and prevent further loss. Knowing that DNA Barcoding speeds up and simplifies the process of understanding what species we have, what species to prevent from invading our ecosystem and what species exist for commercial and research use was enough motivation for me to undertake this course.
Although my major motivation of taking this course was to understand how DNA barcoding can be applied in detection of invasive alien species, by going through Malawi’s National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP) I have identified a lot of areas that can benefit from DNA barcoding most of which I am directly involved in. Malawi’s NBSAP has strategies to establish an effective detection and monitoring system for invasive alien species, an effective detection and monitoring system for biotechnology and an effective system for monitoring compliance to Access and Benefit Sharing legislation. I feel that all these areas can benefit from DNA barcoding in that the basic requirement for these systems to function is to know what kind of species we want to protect preserve and manage.
Currently Malawi is developing a project on management of invasive species and one major component is to develop an inventory of all invasive species in Malawi. The output of the whole project depends on how much we know about invasive species in terms of number and characteristics. Knowing the current challenges in finding adequate experts and resources to complete such a task, DNA barcoding would be one of the most important technologies to be applied in such a project. It would ease the burden of having to search for already limited taxonomists and carefully collecting specimen to preserve their distinguishing features and spending so much time identifying a single species. With this technology the whole process of identifying invasive alien species can be sped up thereby accelerating the implementation of the project.
Similarly, applying DNA barcoding to the implementation of the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing would be helpful for Malawi. Being a signatory to the Nagoya protocol, Malawi needs to ensure that it has a reliable system to monitor and track compliance of bio-prospectors. One of the first activities Malawi has planned is to come up with an inventory of all the genetic resources that are of high value and have high potential to be exploited for commercial purposes. Further, any individuals or companies that access genetic resources in Malawi need to be regulated to prevent fraud and products taken from conserved species. It is of interest for Malawi to know what genetic resources are being utilized and where they end up but that can only be done upon assessment of products to determine their genetic makeup. DNA barcoding can help Malawi in tracing products that utilize their genetic resources and ensure that there is scientific basis for incompliance claims.
Other areas that can benefit from DNA barcoding in Malawi’s NBSAP include updating the National Red Data List, production of Malawi’s valorization strategy, and identification of habitats with high species diversity, conservation of threatened and endangered species and many more. DNA barcoding can speed up process of species identification which will eventually assist us in determine further studies required and conservation approaches to be implemented on specific species and ecosystems. The only limitation would be on whether the reference database contains DNA barcodes for the species of our interest. It would be exciting for Malawi to make submissions of DNA barcodes in case of identification of new species, but from what I have gathered so far there would be a lot of quality requirements that we would need to apply before making submissions.
To set up a functional DNA barcoding system we would need to determine the minimum requirements in terms of infrastructure, skills, quality management system and capacity required. The challenge in Malawi is mainly the type of infrastructure and human resource in our laboratories and the data management systems in place. Most laboratories are not yet accredited and do not have the mandate to carry out specific testing which would need to be dealt with to ensure that tests carried out are acceptable and reliable. Further, the technology is too dependent on how well data is managed and exchanged; data management in laboratories and exchange of information between scientists is a challenge for Malawi at the moment. The question of whether our laboratories would need to be upgraded to internationally or nationally acceptable standards for DNA barcoding would also need to be clarified.