Barcoding the Broads

A Wellcome-funded 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 around 70,000 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 the different species living there in collaboration with local schools and nature groups.

The project uses simple and reliable laboratory and computer techniques to highlight the importance of genomics and bioinformatics for understanding, conserving, and benefiting from biodiversity.

What's on

If you want to get involved or find out more about Barcoding the Broads, please contact Sam Rowe, Public Engagement Officer via our contact form.

DNA Barcoding Training

We are currently offering DNA barcoding training for local teachers, technicians, naturalists and science education professionals to incorporate Barcoding the Broads into the secondary school curriculum and research activities around Norfolk.

The full-day session (9:30am-4pm) takes place on the Norwich Research Park and covers all the laboratory and computer techniques for identifying a species by extracting and analysing its DNA. Sessions are free to attend for groups of up to eight people hoping to use DNA barcoding in education and/or research work.

If you would like to take part, 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.

Meet the Team

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 questions in biology, support global conservation efforts, generate better crops and novel medicines, and provide materials for new biotechnology.

Scroll over or click on the blocks to read more:

What is DNA barcoding?

DNA Barcoding is a powerful tool for species identification that involves extracting and analysing DNA.

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 useful method for species identification because it is relatively fast and cheap. It can work alongside traditional methods of species identification where specimens are carefully analysed by experts with years of knowledge, but where it can sometimes be hard to distinguish between subtle anatomical features.

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

The project focuses on DNA barcoding activities that empower you to learn about exciting topics such as taxonomy, phylogenetics, biodiversity, ecology, bioinformatics and genomics. It 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 in secondary schools, DNA barcoding can be used to support local research projects that study eukaryotic organisms - i.e. those that have a cell nucleus such as plants, insects and fungi. 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 cover the entire DNA barcoding process, including: Rapid DNA Isolation, PCR and Gel Electrophoresis, and DNA Sequencing and Analysis. The project incorporates methods developed over many years by the DNA Learning Centre at Cold Spring Harbour, New York.


You can now view and download the full written protocols for each stage of the DNA barcoding process with plant samples - including a list of all the equipment, consumables and chemical reagents you will need.

Click through the three tabs below to learn more!

Rapid DNA Isolation

The first task is to collect and document a specimen - whether that’s a leaf, a whole insect, or a piece of a mushroom. When doing so, it’s important to respect the environment, obtain permission to collect in the study location and only take a small amount of the specimen needed for DNA barcoding.

As much information as possible about the collection should also be recorded. This “data about data” - called metadata - provides important context, allowing others to know exactly when, where, how and why the specimen was collected.

A small tissue sample is then removed from the specimen to extract and analyse the DNA. The extraction protocol involves grinding up and heating the small tissue sample to break open the cells and release the DNA.

In the video below, Dr Sharon Pepenella from the Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory, New York, introduces DNA barcoding and demonstrates a rapid DNA extraction protocol for plant and invertebrate samples. Full details and wider context are available in the comprehensive guide to DNA barcoding.


PCR and Gel Electrophoresis

Once the DNA has been extracted, a short section is amplified using Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), a simple laboratory process that creates millions or billions of copies of a particular region of the DNA sequence (i.e. the DNA barcode for identifying the species).

The DNA barcode region is different for animals, plants and fungi so the PCR conditions can be adjusted to suit the sample. This video briefly describes the PCR process.

After PCR, gel electrophoresis is used to confirm whether the experiment was successful. This technique mobilises DNA by charge and DNA fragments are separated by size on the gel, with smaller fragments moving further.

In the video below, Dr Allison Mayle from the Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory, New York, explains and demonstrates the PCR and gel electrophoresis methods using portable lab equipment. Full details and wider context are available in the comprehensive guide to DNA barcoding.

DNA Sequencing and Analysis

If gel electrophoresis confirms the PCR experiment was successful then the amplified DNA sample can be sent off for DNA (Sanger) sequencing, a method that determines the order of the A, C, T & G building blocks in the DNA barcode region. Samples are collected and processed by Genewiz with results typically available within 24-48 hours.

The resultant .ab1 files are then processed using an online tool 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) is used to identify your specimen to the genus or species level by comparing its DNA sequence to others 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.

In addition, DNA barcodes analysed as part of Barcoding the Broads may be completely new and, if they are of a high enough quality, can be submitted to a database called GenBank® to support global DNA barcoding efforts.

In the video below, Dr Sharon Pepenella from the Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory, New York, explains DNA sequencing and demonstrates how the DNA Subway is used to identify a species. Full details and wider context are available in the comprehensive guide to DNA barcoding created by the DNA Learning Centre.

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 start breaking open the cells

Heating samples in a water bath to further break open the cells

Preparing isolated DNA for PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction)

DNA samples in the PCR machine for thermal cycling

Preparing the agarose gel to analyse samples after PCR

Amplified DNA samples in the gel tank / visualiser

Bright yellow-green 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 Broads 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