Twelve days of Christmas genomics in native plants
Scientists on the pioneering Darwin Tree of Life (DToL) project to sequence the genomes of 70,000 species of eukaryotic organisms in Britain and Ireland have made a startlingly joyful discovery. Botanical samples collected for genomic barcoding of botanical biodiversity dovetail remarkably well with the all-time festive favourite: the Twelve Days of Christmas.
In a celebration of serious scientific research uniting with the holiday classic, the team at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) have deconstructed the classic Christmas carol and, adding some basic taxonomic artistry, have transformed it into a cumulative song of British flora.
While remaining true to the original concept of daily gifts between Christmas Day and Epiphany, their version presents a more user-friendly approach for anyone thinking they might give – or receive – 12 days of offerings. Much less bulky than actual doves, swans or leaping lords, they give us a botanical bouquet: aligning the lyrics with the common names of native plants being used in the DToL initiative.
In The Twelve Days of DToL, they first introduce a picture of the Pyrus communis, the pear tree – without its partridge - collected for sampling at Hermitage of Braid in Edinburgh. Day two celebrates the immortal Two Turtle Doves with the delicate flowers of Geranium molle, the dove’s foot cranesbill. Moving on another day, Three French Hens are represented in the vivid purple of Orchis mascula or hen’s kames. And so, the daily delights continue until the resounding chorus of Twelve Drummers Drumming, but nothing raucous here, simply the gentle green shadings of Aulacomnium androgynum, the small moss commonly known as drumsticks.
Biodiversity Scientist and co-lyricist Dr Laura Forrest reflected: “The 12 days of Christmas must have been a logistical headache for the recipient of a cumulative total of 12 drummers, 22 pipers, 30 lords, 36 ladies, 40 maids - presumably all with cows, 42 swans, 42 geese, 40 rings, 36 colley or calling birds, 30 hens, 22 doves, 12 partridges and 12 pear trees: A bonanza of living things.
“We decided to celebrate with our own gentler biodiversity bonanza using our wealth of botanical knowledge about how and where to collect specimens, how to identify them and their importance in everyday life – evident by the use of common names. Although a bit of fun, we are also giving a nod to the huge collaborative effort around the United Kingdom and Ireland to collect and sequence the plants, fungi, animals and protists that are native to or naturalised on these islands. While the ambitions of the Darwin Tree of Life initiative are massive and require serious commitment from the 10 institutes involved, we hope we can also bring the lighter side to our work.”
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