HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (AP) — Researchers at the University of Alabama in Huntsville are using DNA to identify invasive plants and help them from spreading in the United States.
The research involves a portable DNA scanner to identify unwanted plants -- even if they are masquerading as something else.
"It really is plant forensics," University of Alabama in Huntsville biologist Dr. Leland Cseke said in a university report. "What we're trying to identify is, who's your daddy?"
One of the main targets of the research is congongrass, al.com reported (http://bit.ly/1034rYl . Congongrass is a fast-growing weed that chokes out other plants and burns with a dangerous intensity in forest fires.
The plant has an ornamental alternate identity as Japanese blood grass or Red Baron grass. That seemingly harmless ornamental "can spontaneously revert to a form that looks and behaves exactly the same as congongrass," Cseke said.
Congongrass arrived in the U.S. near Mobile and other southern ports in the early 1900s. It was produced by nurseries and sold across the South. Now, there are fears it will cross-pollinate with a species adapted to the cold and spread as far north as Canada.
"At the molecular level, they are all basically the same," Cseke. "Their DNA sequence is the same except for one or two base pairs in specific regions of the genome."
That's where a device invented by Dr. Jian Han enters the picture. It performs rapid, automatic DNA analysis.
"Molecular diagnosis has three major steps: get the DNA out from living things, called extraction; get the target gene amplified; and detect the target," Han said.
Congongrass isn't the only target.
Giant hogweed and a "wild" sugarcane are also threats. The sugarcane looks like the agricultural version but doesn't produce the sugar. When those plants are identified and surrounded, the team is confident its work will continue. Plants that could become invasive arrive in the U.S. regularly, hitching a ride in the vents and filters of cargo ships.