Barcoding the Broads

Barcoding the Broads is a programme of public engagement events and activities to explore biodiversity on the Norfolk Broads, led by the Earlham Institute as part of our work on the Darwin Tree of Life project.


Logo for Darwin Tree of Life, written in green text with a green graphic of Britain and Ireland on a light blue background

The Darwin Tree of Life project aims to sequence the genomes of all eukaryotic organisms in Britain and Ireland - that’s over 66,000 species of animals, plants, fungi and protists. But why do we need to do this, and how can you help?

Through Barcoding the Broads, you’ll discover more about an area of special ecological interest: the Norfolk Broads. The project will explore biodiversity in the region and we’ll work with local schools and nature groups to study the different species living there.

This Wellcome funded public engagement project aims to instil an appreciation for biodiversity among the general public, as well as the importance of genomics and bioinformatics in understanding, conserving, and benefiting from it.

What's on

If you're interested in getting involved or want to find out more about the Barcoding the Broads project, please contact Sam Rowe, Public Engagement Officer via our contact form.

Developing Resources

For the pilot phase of the project we are working with the DNA Learning Centre at Cold Spring Harbour, New York, to develop education and engagement resources for secondary schools and nature groups.

If you would like to get involved to help us create accessible resources that link with the national curriculum then please contact Sam Rowe via our contact form.

I'm a Scientist

UK Sixth Form students can get involved through the I’m A Scientist programme where they can engage directly with scientists working on the Darwin Tree of Life project. Find out more at the bottom of the page.

Meet the Team

Read on to find out more about Barcoding the Broads

What are genomes and why are they important?

A genome is the complete set of genetic instructions needed for making and maintaining an organism. It’s made up of DNA, which stands for deoxyribonucleic acid. This is a chemical formed of two long strands arranged in a double helix structure.

A process called DNA sequencing is used to obtain information about a genome. It determines the order of the four chemical building blocks - adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G) and thymine (T), also called nucleotides - that link up to make the DNA strands.

Genomics - the study of genomes - is important because it allows us to answer fundamental biological questions, support conservation efforts, generate better crops and novel medicines, and provide materials for new biotechnology.

Roll over the blocks to find out more:

What is DNA barcoding?

You may have seen product barcodes in the supermarkets, they’re the unique pattern of lines and numbers used to quickly identify the item in the shop. Similarly, DNA barcodes are unique patterns of DNA within a genome that can be used to identify the species that the DNA has come from.

Analysing DNA barcodes is a powerful tool for species identification that complements genomics research. It is relatively fast and cheap compared to traditional methods of species identification where specimens must be carefully analysed by experts with years of knowledge and it can be hard to distinguish between subtle anatomical features, making observations very subjective.

DNA barcoding can also be performed on small, damaged or heavily processed samples, allowing non-experts to objectively classify specimens without lots of specialist laboratory equipment.

Image of a product barcode with thick and thin straight black lines on an off-white background

Barcoding the Broads

Barcoding the Broads focuses on DNA barcoding activities that empower you to become a citizen scientist and learn about exciting topics such as taxonomy, phylogenetics, biodiversity, ecology, bioinformatics and genomics. The project provides an authentic research experience - asking questions, conducting experiments, analysing results and drawing conclusions - with a variety of laboratory and computer-based methods.

In addition to reinforcing biology and chemistry education programmes, DNA barcoding can be used as a tool to support research initiatives. For example, to explore non-native species on the Norfolk Broads, to discover and study organisms unique to the region, or to monitor conservation efforts in particular habitats.

Our activities and resources will cover the entire DNA barcoding process, including: Sample Collection and Metadata, DNA Extraction and Sequencing, and Analysing DNA Sequence Data.


Click through the three tabs below to learn more!

Sample Collection and Metadata

Barcoding the Broads looks at analysing the DNA of eukaryotes - meaning all organisms that have a cell nucleus. This covers animals, plants, fungi and tiny single-celled organisms called protists - the latter of which are of particular interest at the Earlham Institute.

The first task is to collect and document a specimen - whether that’s a leaf, a whole insect, or a piece of a mushroom - from the location of study, in this case the Norfolk Broads. When doing so, it’s important to respect the environment, obtain permission to collect in the location and only take a small amount of the specimen needed for DNA barcoding. Using tweezers, scalpel or scissors, a small tissue sample can then be carefully taken from the collected specimen.

Image of sample collection from a body of water with green plants, the person is wearing blue gloves using a plastic pipette

Data about Data - or 'metadata'

It’s also vital to record as much extra information about the specimen as possible including the collection time, exact location and methods used for extracting a tissue sample, along with any photographs of the specimen in its natural habitat. This “data about data” - called metadata - provides important context, allowing others to know exactly when, where, how and why the tissue sample was taken. At the Earlham Institute, this is where Collaborative OPen Omics comes in, a system allowing users to upload metadata for an experiment and ensure that important results are easily accessible and searchable.

DNA Extraction and Sequencing

Once a tissue sample has been collected, it can be taken to the lab and processed to extract and amplify the DNA. The extraction involves grinding up the tissue sample and breaking open the cells within it to release DNA. In the video below, Dr Sharon Pepenella demonstrates an extraction protocol for plant and invertebrate samples that was developed by Cold Spring Harbour:

A section of the DNA is then amplified using Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), a simple laboratory process that creates millions and millions of copies of a particular region of the DNA sequence (i.e. the DNA barcode for identifying the species). The barcoding region is different for animals, plants and fungi so the PCR conditions can be adjusted to suit the sample. The video below briefly describes the PCR process:

After PCR, the amplified DNA is sent off for sequencing and the resultant data can be analysed to identify the species collected from the environment and to explore how its DNA relates to other organisms.

Analysing DNA Sequence Data

Our activities use an online tool developed by Cold Spring Harbour called the DNA Subway where the “Blue Line” allows users to upload, assemble and analyse DNA sequences. A program called BLAST (Basic Local Alignment Search Tool) can be used for identification of an unknown sample to the genus or species level by comparing the DNA sequence to others already published within online databases.

Screenshot of the DNA Subway software showing five lines coloured red, yellow, blue, green and purple from top to bottom

The DNA Subway also lets users create a branching diagram called a phylogenetic tree which shows the relationships between different taxonomic groups. The pattern of branching in the tree relates to how and when the species evolved from common ancestors.

Overall, the DNA barcoding process is a powerful method for objective species identification that can complement education programmes and research projects. Some of the DNA barcodes analysed as part of Barcoding the Broads may even be completely new and, if they are of a high enough quality, can be submitted to a genetic sequence database called GenBank® to support global DNA barcoding efforts.

Collecting a leaf sample near our office on the Norwich Research Park.

Separating a small piece of leaf for DNA extraction

Crushing a small leaf sample with a pestle to break open the cells.

Preparing the extracted DNA for PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction)

DNA samples in the PCR machine.

Amplified DNA samples in the gel tank / visualiser after PCR.

Bright bands for amplified DNA indicating a successful experiment.

Getting Involved

From March 2021, UK sixth form students can engage with the Darwin Tree of Life project, and the work which comes from it, through I’m A Scientist.

Logo for I’m A Scientist, written in a mixture of blue and pink text with a dark purple outline

This is an online, text-based STEM engagement activity where students can:

● Check in regularly for updates about the project

● Ask questions directly to the scientists and researchers involved to develop their understanding of scientific thinking and processes with real-world examples

● Connect with teams of scientists through live Chats to gain a better understanding of current science and research

● Vote for their favourite team to win

The activity is flexible - you book live Chats at times suitable for you and your students, or your students can attend independently. It’s all online and accessible from school or at home. All your students need is a computer or tablet, and Internet access - no audio or video is needed.


Coming Soon

We will be developing more activities and resources for our Barcoding the Broad programme and can't wait to share these with you. These will include downloadable activity sheets, explainer videos and teaching resources. Keep an eye on this page to see updates or contact Sam Rowe, Public Engagement Officer via our contact form to find out the latest information.

Supporting partners and collaborators.

Logo for BBSRC
Logo for Wellcome, written in black text with a large letter W top centre
Logo for Earth Biogenome Project with the tagline of sequencing life for the future of life, in a mixture of black red and grey
Logo for Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, written in dark blue text with a DNA graphic on the left encircling the letters CSH
Logo for Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, written in dark blue text with a DNA graphic on the left encircling the letters CSH
Logo for DNA Learning Centre Barcoding 101, written in a mixture of red, black and grey text with a graphic representing a DNA