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Insects leave tiny traces of DNA on the flowers they visit

The survey revealed 135 different species of butterflies, moths, bees, flies, beetles, aphids, plant bugs and spiders.

By
Brooks Hays
Scientists identified the DNA traces of 135 different species on the pedals of seven different flower species, including the European skipper. Photo by Ole Martin
Scientists identified the DNA traces of 135 different species on the pedals of seven different flower species, including the European skipper. Photo by Ole Martin

Feb. 8 (UPI) -- Scientists have developed new tools for identifying the tiny traces of DNA on flower petals left behind by insect visitors.

By analyzing DNA signatures on flower petals, scientists can more easily track the movement and feeding patterns of vulnerable pollinators like bees and butterflies, as well as identify novel plant-insect relationships.

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Environmental DNA, or eDNA, is the mix of genetic material left behind by organisms. Previously, scientists have analyzed eDNA from ocean samples to characterize biological diversity in different marine ecosystems.

Because a single meadow or field can host hundreds of insect species that visit hundreds of different plant species, tracking biological activity can prove difficult. The latests DNA analysis techniques

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"I have worked with DNA from water and soil samples for several years and have often thought that DNA is probably much more common in the environment than would initially imagine," Philip Francis Thomsen, an assistant professor at Aarhus University, said in a news release. "With this study we wanted to test if eDNA from flowers can reveal which insects the flowers have interacted with."

For their proof-of-concept study, researchers sequenced the DNA found on 50 flower petals collected from seven different plant species. The survey revealed 135 different species of butterflies, moths, bees, flies, beetles, aphids, plant bugs and spiders.

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Researchers detailed the flower's visitors in a new paper published this week in the journal Ecology and Evolution. The analysis techniques could open a range of new research opportunities.

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"The eDNA method might provide a comprehensive overview of the insects involved in the pollination of various plants," Thomsen said. "Earlier the focus has almost entirely been on bees, butterflies and hoverflies, but we have found DNA from a wide range of other insects such as moths and beetles that may in fact also be important pollinators."

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