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Illegal trade of orchids uncovered by genetic detective work

Salep is a popular drink in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East based on ground dried orchid roots. Although harvesting wild orchids is prohibited in many countries, it is still practised with little discrimination on what species are actually picked. Combined with a renewed interest in organic food and thereby increased demand for orchids, unsuspecting consumers risk getting threatened species in their drinks. Researchers are now able to accurately determine what species are used in commercial products using molecular identification or so- called DNA barcoding, an important new tool for plant conservation.

The research team behind the current study, led by Hugo de Boer at the Natural History Museum (University of Oslo), not only revealed illegal trade with wild orchids, but also concluded that many products do not even contain what is stated on the label. "We were surpriced to find that most of the products are a hoax, not containting orchids at all", says de Boer.

De Boer and his team now utilise the same method to scrutinise the content of other commercial products, like pharmaceutical products and dietary supplements. "With our specialization in molecular identification of plants we now lead a EU project that focuses on the identification of pollen, algae, medicine and import of tropical timber", adds de Boer.

Read the paper: DNA metabarcoding of orchid-derived products reveals widespread illegal orchid trade.

Article source: Natural History Museum, University of Oslo.

Image credit: Anna Kreziou

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