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Margaret Mead
Research Article

Molecular Identification of Commercialized Medicinal Plants in Southern Morocco


Background Medicinal plant trade is important for local livelihoods. However, many medicinal plants are difficult to identify when they are sold as roots, powders or bark. DNA barcoding involves using a short, agreed-upon region of a genome as a unique identifier for species– ideally, as a global standard. Research Question What is the functionality, efficacy and accuracy of the use of barcoding for identifying root material, using medicinal plant roots sold by herbalists in Marrakech, Morocco, as a test dataset. Methodology In total, 111 root samples were sequenced for four proposed barcode regions rpoC1, psbA-trnH, matK and ITS. Sequences were searched against a tailored reference database of Moroccan medicinal plants and their closest relatives using BLAST and Blastclust, and through inference of RAxML phylograms of the aligned market and reference samples. Principal Findings Sequencing success was high for rpoC1, psbA-trnH, and ITS, but low for matK. Searches using rpoC1 alone resulted in a number of ambiguous identifications, indicating insufficient DNA variation for accurate species-level identification. Combining rpoC1, psbA-trnH and ITS allowed the majority of the market samples to be identified to genus level. For a minority of the market samples, the barcoding identification differed significantly from previous hypotheses based on the vernacular names. Conclusions/Significance Endemic plant species are commercialized in Marrakech. Adulteration is common and this may indicate that the products are becoming locally endangered. Nevertheless the majority of the traded roots belong to species that are common and not known to be endangered. A significant conclusion from our results is that unknown samples are more difficult to identify than earlier suggested, especially if the reference sequences were obtained from different populations. A global barcoding database should therefore contain sequences from different populations of the same species to assure the reference sequences characterize the species throughout its distributional range.