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Museum Hosts Inaugural Symposium for Urban Barcode Project

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Education posts

Bobby Glover, Mary Acheampong, and Marisa VanBrakle of Hostos-Lincoln Academy of Science took home the grand prize for the 2012 Urban Barcode Project. 
© Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

Are crab cakes really made of crab? Do endangered species creep into street markets? How many types of bedbugs live in Brooklyn?

These were just three of the dozens of research questions asked by participants in the inaugural New York City Urban Barcode Project, whose first symposium and awards ceremony took place at the Museum last week. Using a technique called DNA barcoding to find unique genetic identifiers in DNA samples, students from all five boroughs performed their own analysis to conduct investigations ranging from food mislabeling to biodiversity of urban parks.

“Teaching science is best done hands-on,” says Rob DeSalle, curator in the Museum’s Division of Invertebrate Zoology. “The over 200 students who participated in the Urban Barcode Project experienced one of the best hands-on experiences possible.”

Several Museum scientists and educators mentored or judged the 75 teams of students, which included participants from the Museum’s after-school programs and Science Research Mentoring Program (SRMP). Their projects shed new light on the rich biodiversity of even the most urban surroundings.

At the end of the night, the $10,000 grand prize was awarded to Mary Acheampong, Bobby Glover, and Marisa VanBrakle of Hostos-Lincoln Academy of Science for their investigation of the presence of ginkgo in herbal products that claimed to contain this non-flowering plant. Studying capsules, tablets, liquids, leaves, and seeds from stores in the Bronx and Manhattan, the team used genetic barcoding to find that some of these readily available products contained little to no Ginkgo biloba DNA.

The Urban Barcode Project is run by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s DNA Learning Center and was made possible by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. New York City institutions including the American Museum of Natural History, Genspace, New York Botanical Garden, Brooklyn Bridge Park, and the Rockefeller University partnered with the DNA Learning Center to provide facilities and mentoring to the student teams.