DNA barcoding, or the use of short DNA sequences to help distinguish between species, is becoming a more popular way to effectively and inexpensively differentiate between plant and animal species. 

The genus Phoenix, which includes the date palm, has long given scientists trouble when it comes to differentiating between species based solely on appearances. Making matters worse is the plants' high infertility, leading to a great degree of hybridization and, as a result, even greater confusion for researchers.

Hoping to come up with a solution for the problem, an international team of scientists studied a small region of chloroplast DNA in search of a possible "barcode" for the plant group. By studying more than 130 palm trees hailing from 13 of the genus' 14 species, the team discovered enough DNA variation to correctly identify eight out of 13 species, according to their study published in the journal ZooKeys.

"It's a very encouraging result." said Marco Ballardini, first author of the study and a biologist who, at that time, worked as a research assistant at the Consiglio per la Ricerca e la Sperimentazione in Agricoltura in Sanremo, Italy.

"Finding the appropriate DNA barcode for Phoenix palms has several practical applications," he added "ranging from the conservation of endemic and/or endangered species, like the Canary Island date palm, or the Cretan date palm, to the identification of hybrids having an ornamental value."

Going forward, Ballardini said more research is needed in order to increase the experiment's success rate.

"To achieve a 100 percent success in identifying Phoenix palms, we have to analyze a few more regions of DNA, especially in the case of closely related species," he said. "Moreover, as the chloroplast DNA is inherited only through the maternal lineage, DNA of paternal origin should also be taken into consideration, in order to detect all possible hybrids', concluded Ballardini.

Meanwhile, a second study published in the journal ZooKeys revealed the potential of DNA barcoding in differentiating between Dutch bird species. The team, led by Mansour Aliabadian, from Ferdowsi University of Mashhad, Iran, sequenced 388 birds from 147 species to find that 95 percent of the species studied boasted a unique barcode.