Plant DNA barcodes and species resolution in sedges (Carex, Cyperaceae)



    1. Canadian Museum of Nature, PO Box 3443, Station D, Ottawa, ON, Canada K1P 6P4
    2. Department of Biology, Gendron Hall, Room 160, 30 Marie Curie, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, ON, Canada K1N 6N5
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    1. The New York Botanical Garden, 2900 Southern Blvd., Bronx, NY 10458-5126, USA
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    1. Canadian Museum of Nature, PO Box 3443, Station D, Ottawa, ON, Canada K1P 6P4
    2. Department of Biology, Gendron Hall, Room 160, 30 Marie Curie, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, ON, Canada K1N 6N5
    Search for more papers by this author

Julian R. Starr, Fax: 613-364-4027; E-mail:


We investigate the species discriminatory power of a subset of the proposed plant barcoding loci (matK, rbcL, rpoC1, rpoB, trnH-psbA) in Carex, a cosmopolitan genus that represents one of the three largest plant genera on earth (c. 2000 species). To assess the ability of barcoding loci to resolve Carex species, we focused our sampling on three of the taxonomically best-known groups in the genus, sections Deweyanae (6/8 species sampled), Griseae (18/21 species sampled), and Phyllostachyae (10/10 species sampled). Each group represents one of three major phylogenetic lineages previously identified in Carex and its tribe Cariceae, thus permitting us to evaluate the potential of DNA barcodes to broadly identify species across the tribe and to differentiate closely related sister species. Unlike some previous studies that have suggested that plant barcoding could achieve species identification rates around 90%, our results suggest that no single locus or multilocus barcode examined will resolve much greater than 60% of Carex species. In fact, no multilocus combination can significantly increase the resolution and statistical support (i.e., ≥ 70% bootstrap) for species than matK alone, even combinations involving the second most variable region, trnH-psbA. Results suggest that a matK barcode could help with species discovery as 47% of Carex taxa recently named or resolved within cryptic complexes in the past 25 years also formed unique species clusters in upgma trees. Comparisons between the nrDNA internal transcribed spacer region (ITS) and matK in sect. Phyllostachyae suggest that matK not only discriminates more species (50–60% vs. 25%), but it provides more resolved phylogenies than ITS. Given the low levels of species resolution in rpoC1 and rpoB (0–13%), and difficulties with polymerase chain reaction amplification and DNA sequencing in rbcL and trnH-psbA (alignment included), we strongly advocate that matK should be part of a universal plant barcoding system. Although identification rates in this study are low, they can be significantly improved by a regional approach to barcoding.


Carex L. (Cariceae Pax; Cyperaceae Juss.) is an enormous genus (c. 2000 species) equalled in species diversity only by Euphorbia L. and Piper L. (Frodin 2004). It is also of global importance as one of the few truly cosmopolitan plant genera (Good 1974) with centres of diversity in the temperate regions of Asia, Europe and the Americas. Throughout its range, Carex is found in a multitude of habitats ranging from deserts to rain forests, and in some regions, such the Arctic, it is one of the dominant components in terms of species diversity and biomass (Scott 1995; Aiken et al. 2007). Moreover, its species often demonstrate a high degree of habitat specificity, making them some of the best indicator plants for characterizing habitat types (e.g. Magee & Rorer 1981; Klinka et al. 1989; Anderson et al. 1996; Ringius et al. 1997; Vellend et al. 2000; Karlsen & Elvebakk 2003; Gignac et al. 2004; Dabros & Waterway 2008). Although Carex lacks crop species, it is of indirect economic importance for its weeds. Approximately 18% of the estimated 449 Cyperaceae species explicitly cited as weedy (Bryson & Carter 2008) are found within Carex, some of which have spread at an astonishing rate (Reznicek & Catling 1987).

Clearly, the biological diversity, ecological significance and economic impact of Carex is global in nature, and yet its species are often ignored by scientists and the general public alike. This is largely due to the genus’ complex taxonomy and reduced morphology, which can make species identification difficult, particularly in temperate areas where local Carex floras can approach or exceed 100 taxa (e.g. City of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, Brunton 2005; Tompkins Co., New York, USA, Weldy & Werier 2008). In Carex species, reliable morphological identification is complicated by the fact that closely related taxa often differ by only a single qualitative character or by the accumulation of many small quantitative differences (Naczi 1992; Standley et al. 2002). In addition, identification typically requires reproductively mature material that may be available for only a short period of the year (e.g. Naczi & Bryson 2002) as well as a good understanding of the genus’ morphology and terminology in order to navigate through lengthy taxonomic keys (e.g. the key to Canadian Carex is 39 pages in Scoggan 1978). This difficulty with identification has many unfortunate consequences: some studies purposely ignore sedge diversity (e.g. Dornbush 2004); invasive species go unnoticed or are mistaken as natives (e.g. Catling & Kostiuk 2003; Janeway 2005); floras are often incomplete or erroneous (e.g. Zika & Kuykendall 2001); and taxonomic confusion related to misidentification is common (e.g. Wheeler 2007; Molina et al. 2008). Unfortunately, this problem is only getting worse as numerous, often cryptic species continue to be discovered. Over the past 20 years in North America alone, more than two new Carex species per year have been discovered on average with the majority of them in one of the best studied floras in the world, eastern North America (Hartman & Nelson 1998; Ertter 2000; Ford et al. 2008). Any methodology that can facilitate the correct identification of Carex species and aid in new discoveries, particularly as threats from habitat loss, invasive species and climate change increase globally, would constitute a significant contribution to science and society. Owing to its great diversity, difficult morphology and high potential for still undiscovered species, Carex is a prime candidate to develop DNA barcodes.

The promise of DNA barcoding is that it will provide a quick, simple and economic tool for identifying and discovering biological diversity. Ideally, a DNA barcode would require only small amounts of possibly poor quality tissue to be easily amplified and sequenced using universal primers. In addition, its sequences would provide a high level of confidence that the name provided by the barcode database could be treated as an actual ‘species identification’, and if sufficiently different from any other member in the database, it would indicate that a new species had been discovered (Savolainen et al. 2005; Kress & Erickson 2008).

In this study, we evaluate a subset (matK, rbcL, rpoC1, rpoB, trnH-psbA) of the seven proposed plant barcodes (Pennisi 2007) for their technical practicality (i.e. ease of amplification and sequencing) and potential to identify and discover Carex and Cariceae species. We focused our efforts on three of the taxonomically best-known groups in the genus and tribe, Carex sections Deweyanae (Tuckerm. ex Mack.) Mack., Griseae (L. H. Bailey) Kük., and Phyllostachyae Tuckerm. ex Kük. Species in these sections are clearly circumscribed by multiple lines of morphological (e.g. Saarela & Ford 2001; Crins et al. 2002; Naczi & Bryson 2002; Naczi 2002), anatomical (Starr & Ford 2001), cytological (Naczi 1999), and molecular evidence in the case of sect. Phyllostachyae (Ford et al. 1998a, 1998b, 1998c; Starr et al. 1999; Ford & Naczi 2001). Each section also represents one of three major lineages identified in tribal phylogenies (Yen & Olmstead 2000; Roalson et al. 2001; Starr et al. 2004, 2008; Waterway & Starr 2007; Starr & Ford 2009), permitting us to evaluate the potential of barcodes to broadly identify species across tribe Cariceae and to differentiate sister species, the most difficult challenge for any barcoding system. In addition, these groups contain species discovered (e.g. Naczi 1993; Ford & Naczi 2001; Saarela & Ford 2001; Naczi et al. 2002) and/or species complexes resolved (e.g. Naczi et al. 1998; Ford et al. 1998a) within the last 25 years, which allowed us to evaluate how successful barcodes might be for discovering new species and for helping to resolve difficult taxonomic problems within the tribe. Since the barcoding regions examined have not previously been used in Carex or Cariceae phylogenetics, we also assessed their potential for clarifying relationships within these groups.

Methods and materials

Taxonomic sampling

To determine which of a subset of the proposed barcoding loci are necessary to resolve Carex species, we sampled one to four individuals per taxon for sections Deweyanae (six taxa analysed from a total of nine in the section), Griseae (18 taxa analysed from a total of 21 in the section), and Phyllostachyae (10 taxa analysed from a total of 10 in the section) (Appendix S1, Supporting information). Most taxa (31 of 34) were represented by multiple individuals and the majority of these (20 of 31) consisted of three or more samples. Although morphological and molecular evidence suggest that Carex laeviculmis is not a part of sect. Deweyanae, it was treated as such for the purposes of this study (see Naczi 2002; Ford et al. 2006; Naczi 2009).

DNA isolation and amplification

All regions were polymerase chain reaction (PCR) amplified from total genomic DNA isolated from herbarium specimens using a modified silica-column-based method (Alexander et al. 2007) where the guanidine hydrochloride in the binding buffer was increased from 2 m to 7 m and the end percentage of ETOH was 16.7%. Primer sequences for the coding regions matK (matK-2.1f, matK-5 r), rpoB (rpoB-2f, rpoB-4 r), and rpoC1 (rpoC1–1f, rpoC1–4 r) were obtained from the phase 2 protocols available on the Royal Botanic Gardens’ (Kew) barcoding website ( A portion of the chloroplast gene rbcL was initially amplified using primers Z1 (Arnold et al. 1991) and Z-1240R (Herre et al. 1996). After problems with sequencing were encountered with these primers, the rbcL primer set used by Kress & Erickson (2007) (rbcL-a_f, Tsukaya et al. 1997; rbcL-a_r) was also tried. The noncoding trnH-psbA region was amplified as in Kress et al. (2005) using primers psbA3′f (Sang et al. 1997) and trnHf (Tate & Simpson 2003). Primers were not re-designed when problems with PCR or sequencing were encountered since the purpose of this study was to evaluate both the ability of a barcode to resolve species as well as how easily it can be amplified and sequenced. Each PCR amplification contained the following reactants dissolved in an end volume of 15 µL: 1× PCR buffer (Sigma, P2317), 0.2 mm of each dNTP, 0.25 µm of each primer, 2.5 mm MgCl2, 1.33 mg BSA, 10–50 ng of template DNA, and 2.5 U of JumpStart Taq DNA Polymerase (Sigma, D4184). PCR products were amplified on a Bio-Rad DNA engine (PTC-200) gradient cycler via 30 cycles of DNA denaturation at 95 °C for 45 s, primer annealing at 45 °C for 45 s, and DNA strand extension at 72 °C for 90 s, with a pre-treatment at 95 °C for 60 s before cycling. The PCR was terminated by a final extension step of 72 °C for 3 min. Minor adjustments to the above PCR protocols were sometimes necessary depending on DNA quality and the primer pair used for amplification. A sample of each reaction was run on 2.0% agarose gels stained with ethidium bromide and successful products were sent to the Canadian Centre for DNA Barcoding at the University of Guelph where they were sequenced in both directions using PCR primers according to the Centre's protocols (


Bidirectional sequences for each locus were assembled and edited in Sequencher 4.7 (Genecodes). Manual alignment was used for coding loci due to a lack of size differences among taxa; however, alignment for the noncoding trnH-psbA region required the use of Clustal_X (default settings; Thompson et al. 1997). To assess the ability of each locus and multilocus combination to resolve species, upgma (unweighted pair group method with arithmetic mean) dendrograms based on Kimura 2-parameter distances (K2P, recommended by CBOL, were constructed in paup* 4.10b (default settings; Swofford 2003). Only upgma analyses were performed as they have consistently resolved the greatest number of species in studies that have used multiple tree building methods (e.g. Lahaye et al. 2008a, b). A positive identification by a barcoding locus or combination of loci was counted only when all individuals sampled for a species (i.e. ≥ 2; includes subspecific taxa) formed a single cluster in trees. Following Fazekas et al. (2008), the number of species resolved with a bootstrap (BS) value of ≥ 70% (heuristic searches, 10 000 random additions with the MULTREES option off; DeBry & Olmstead 2000) was counted and reported as a percentage of the total number of species resolvable to assess support for successful resolution of a species cluster. As numerous difficulties with the amplification and sequencing of the trnH-psbA region were encountered for taxa within sections Deweyanae and Phyllostachyae, the utility of this region for barcoding purposes was only assessed within sect. Griseae. The barcoding potential of the rbcL gene was not evaluated as both primer sets assayed did not provide a sufficient number of readable sequences.

The potential for barcoding loci to help discover new species was assessed by counting the number of species resolved by the best barcoding locus or multilocus combination for new taxa named in the past 25 years. This represents nine taxa in sect. Griseae (Carex acidicola, C. brysonii, C. calcifugens, C. godfreyi, C. ouachitana, C. paeninsulae, C. pigra, C. planispicata, C. thornei; Kral et al. 1987; Naczi 1993, 1997, 1999; Naczi et al. 2002), three in sect. Phyllostachyae (C. cordillerana, C. juniperorum, C. timida; Catling et al. 1993; Ford & Naczi 2001; Saarela & Ford 2001), and two in sect. Deweyanae (C. bromoides ssp. montana, C. infirminervia; Naczi 1990; Naczi et al. 2002). Note that all of these taxa, except C. brysonii and C. bromoides ssp. montana, were represented by two or more individuals. In addition, the ability of the best barcoding locus or multilocus combination for helping to resolve former taxonomic problems was assessed by the level of resolution achieved in the Carex willdenowii complex (sect. Phyllostachyae), a cryptic group of three species (C. basiantha, C. superata, C. willdenowii) that are separable on the basis of morphological, anatomical, micromorphological and molecular data (Ford et al. 1998a; Naczi et al. 1998; Starr et al. 1999; Starr & Ford 2001).

The utility of coding regions for phylogenetic purposes was also explored in paup* by comparing basic character statistics among loci and the range of sequence divergence across taxa (K2P). The same was not carried out for the noncoding trnH-psbA region as it could not be widely amplified, sequenced, or aligned for the sections examined. The utility of matK for reconstructing lower-level relationships in Carex was assessed by comparing levels of clade support and tree resolution in phylogenies constructed using matK vs. the internal transcribed spacer (ITS) region of nuclear ribosomal DNA (nrDNA) in sect. Phyllostachyae (Starr et al. 1999). Strict consensus trees were assembled from heuristic parsimony searches using a random addition sequence of taxa (10 000 repetitions) with the MULTREES option on. upgma trees were also constructed to see whether more species clusters would be resolved for each data set by this method.


PCR amplification and DNA sequencing

Of the 93 individuals included in this study, strong or weak PCR amplification was achievable for all loci, although a small percentage of individuals (2%) could not be amplified for either the trnH-psbA, rbcL (both primer sets) or matK regions (Table 1). Double banding was observed in amplifications for the trnH-psbA (17%) and rbcL (5%) regions (Table 1). Success rates for bidirectional sequences were highest for rpoB (100%) and matK (95%), followed by trnH-psbA (72%) and rpoC1 (52%). Single direction sequence reads were obtained for 30% of rpoC1 and 9% of trnH-psbA samples. Sequences were unreadable for approximately 9% of trnH-psbA and 2% of matK sequences. All efforts to sequence rbcL in both directions failed, with 82% of sequences being entirely unreadable. Readable sequence could not be obtained from the alternative primer set rbcL-a_f and rbcL-a_r. Although rpoC1 could not be reliably sequenced in both directions, clear sequence was obtained for all taxa sampled in at least one direction. In this case, the reverse primer (rpoC1–4 r) appears to double prime during sequencing.

Table 1.  PCR and sequencing success for the samples used in this study
PCR — samples tried9393939393
PCR — strong amplification72 (77%)60 (65%)84 (90%)46 (49%)60 (65%)
PCR — weak amplification19 (21%)33 (35%) 9 (10%)45 (49%)31 (33%)
PCR — double banding 0 (0%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%)16 (17%) 5 (5%)
PCR — failure 2 (2%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%) 2 (2%) 2 (2%)
Sequencing — samples tried9193937586
Sequencing — bidirectional (complete)86 (95%)93 (100%)48 (52%)54 (72%) 0 (0%)
Sequencing — bidirectional (incomplete) 3 (3%) 0 (0%)45 (48%)15 (20%)15 (18%)
Sequencing — single direction 0 (0%) 0 (0%)28 (30%) 7 (9%) 0 (0%)
Sequencing — reaction failure 2 (2%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%) 7 (9%)71 (82%)

Alignment and barcoding

Sequences for coding regions could be aligned easily by eye as no insertion/deletion (indel) events were detected. However, the trnH-psbA intergenic spacer showed considerable size variation across the taxa examined (600 to 852 bp). Efforts to align this locus using Clustal_X could not be easily achieved across all taxa. The rps19 gene previously detected by Wang et al. (2008) in the Cyperaceae genus Scirpus L. and across most monocots, is also present in the spacer region between the trnH and psbA genes of Carex. Alignments of Carex trnH-psbA sequences with the rps19 gene of Scirpus ternatanus Reinw. ex Miq. (AB331264) revealed the absence of five codons in all Carex near the 5′ end of the gene (codons 20 to 24) as well as the lack of 27 codons including the stop signal on the 3’ end of rps19 in species of sect. Griseae only.

The utility of the coding sequences examined for barcoding, alone and in multigene combinations, is presented in Table 2. Results indicate that matK resolves a much higher percentage of species (57%) than either rpoC1 or rpoB (9% each), and it provides more statistical support for taxa ≥ 70% BS (33%) than either of these loci (3% each). Multigene combinations only marginally resolve a greater percentage of taxa and provide greater support over matK alone (Table 2), with the exception of rpoB + rpoC1 which provides considerably poorer resolution (17%) and support (10%) for the taxa examined. A upgma dendrogram using matK data is presented in Fig. 1.

Table 2.  Barcoding utility of coding sequences in Carex. Only individuals with data for the single locus or multiple loci examined were included in analyses
 Species resolvable (≥ 2 individuals)Species resolved as single groupsSpecies resolved with ≥ 70% BS
matK3017 (57%)10 (33%)
rpoB32 3 (9%) 1 (3%)
rpoC133 3 (9%) 1 (3%)
matK + rpoB2917 (59%)11 (38%)
matK + rpoC13018 (60%)11 (37%)
rpoB + rpoC130 5 (17%) 3 (10%)
matK + rpoB+rpoC12917 (59%)11 (38%)
Figure 1.

upgma dendrogram of Carex taxa using 815 bp of the 3′ end of matK. Specific epithets are followed by DNA numbers and standard abbreviations for the state or province in which a sample was collected (see Appendix S1). Branches in grey represent species for which all individuals sampled (≥ 2) formed a single species cluster. Single species clusters receiving ≥ 70% BS support are distinguished by asterisks above branches. Arrow heads represent single species clusters (≥ 2) named within the past 25 years, including the three species recently resolved within the Carex willdenowii complex in sect. Phyllostachyae. Individuals from taxa named in the last 25 years that did not group into single species clusters are indicated by black dots to the right of state and province abbreviations. Since the newly discovered C. brysonii and C. bromoides ssp. montana were represented by only a single sample each, they are not distinguished by arrow heads or dots in the figure.

In comparisons of the noncoding trnH-psbA region vs. all coding sequences and locus combinations in sect. Griseae, matK provided greater levels of species resolution (53% vs. 44%) and species statistical support (27% vs. 19%) than trnH-psbA alone (Table 3). The genes rpoB and rpoC1 provided very low resolution (0% vs. 13%) and support (0% vs. 7%) for species groups (Table 3). Only trnH-psbA + matK + rpoC1 and trnH-psbA + matK + rpoB + rpoC1 resolved more species and provided better statistical support for taxa than matK alone (Table 3), although these increases were small (53% vs. 57% species resolution, 27 % vs. 36% of species with ≥ 70% BS).

Table 3.  Barcoding utility of the noncoding trnH-psbA region versus coding sequences in Carex section Griseae. Only individuals with data for the single locus or multiple loci examined were included in analyses
 Individuals (n)Aligned lengthVariable charactersInformative charactersSpecies resolvable (≥ 2 individuals)Species resolved as unique clustersSpecies resolved with ≥ 70% BS
trnH-psbA49 6003221167 (44%)3 (19%)
matK42 8153227158 (53%)4 (27%)
rpoB42 508 3 2150 (0%)0 (0%)
rpoC142 58410 7152 (13%)1 (7%)
trnH-psbA+matK4114156239147 (50%)4 (29%)
trnH-psbA+rpoB4111083318165 (31%)3 (19%)
trnH-psbA+rpoC14111843922145 (36%)3 (21%)
matK+rpoB4213233529157 (47%)4 (27%)
matK+rpoC14213994234157 (47%)4 (27%)
rpoB+rpoC142109213 9152 (13%)1 (7%)
trnH-psbA+matK+rpoB4119236541147 (50%)4 (29%)
trnH-psbA+rpoB+rpoC14116924224145 (36%)3 (21%)
trnH-psbA+matK+rpoC14119997145148 (57%)5 (36%)
trnH-psbA +matK+rpoB+rpoC14125077447148 (57%)5 (36%)

Utility of barcodes for resolving recently named taxa

For recently described taxa (last 25 years), matK resolved two (C. godfreyi, C. ouachitana) of the eight species in sect. Griseae for which multiple individuals were available (Fig. 1). The ninth species, Carex brysonii, was represented by a single individual isolated on a long branch (Fig. 1). For sect. Deweyanae, individuals of C. infirminervia were clearly separated from all other species. Carex bromoides ssp. montana, which was represented by a single sample, clearly separated from the three individuals sequenced for C. bromoides ssp. bromoides. In sect. Phyllostachyae, only one (C. cordillerana) of the three species recently named came out as a single cluster (Fig. 1). All members of the C. willdenowii complex (C. basiantha, C. superata, C. willdenowii) were resolved as unique clusters (Fig. 1). A pectinate clustering pattern was seen among individuals of C. juniperorum and C. timida (Fig. 1).

Phylogenetic utility of barcoding regions

MatK has 3.3 and 2.9 times more informative characters than rpoB and rpoC1 respectively, and it is approximately 3.4 and 2.9 times more variable than rpoB and rpoC1 for the taxa examined (Table 4). For comparisons between phylogenies constructed for sect. Phyllostachyae using the ITS and matK regions, matK resolved more taxa and provided more statistical support for clades than ITS regardless of the tree construction method used (Fig. 2; Table 5).

Table 4.  Phylogenetic utility of barcoding genes
Individuals (n) 86 91 92
Aligned length815508584
Sequence divergence0.0–4.2%0.0–3.0%0.0–2.7%
Variable characters 82 25 30
Informative characters 72 22 25
Figure 2.

Trees resulting from the parsimony analysis of nrDNA ITS (strict consensus) and cpDNA matK sequences in Carex section Phyllostachyae. Branches in grey represent monophyletic species. Bootstrap values are given above branches.

Table 5.  Phylogenetic and barcoding utility of matK versus ITS at lower taxonomic levels using Carex section Phyllostachyae as an example
Individuals (n) 27 22
Aligned length (bp)815464
Variable characters 23 30
Informative characters 17 25
Species resolvable (≥ 2 individuals) 10  8
Species resolved as single groups (parsimony —upgma)5–6 (50–60%)2–2 (25–25%)
Species resolved with ≥ 70% BS support3 (30%)1 (13%)


Barcoding loci: PCR and sequencing success

Beyond simple sequence variability, crucial characteristics for barcoding loci include primer universality and easy amplification and sequencing (Chase et al. 2007; Fazekas et al. 2008). In this study, all regions amplified except for a small percentage of individuals for the trnH-psbA, rbcL and matK regions. Excluding matK, these regions were also the most difficult to cleanly amplify and sequence. Although the rbcL region typically amplified well, it was prone to double banding, and only a handful of poorly readable sequences were obtained despite the use of two different primer sets. Normally the rbcL region is easy to amplify and sequence across a wide range of land plants, but like many other barcoding loci assayed (Fazekas et al. 2008), it still requires the use of multiple primer sets to achieve complete taxonomic coverage. If rbcL is chosen as a universal plant barcode, as some authors propose (Newmaster et al. 2006; Kress & Erickson 2007), primers other than those used here will be necessary to obtain data for Carex.

The trnH-psbA region was undoubtedly the most difficult to cleanly amplify and sequence. Highly variable in size and difficult to align across Carex clades, the trnH-psbA region produced numerous double bands, was difficult to sequence in both directions and yielded a considerable number of sequences that were unreadable. Part of the difficulty associated with its sequencing and alignment can be explained by the presence of numerous homopolymer regions, a fact that also accounts for most of the spacer size differences observed amongst taxa as these and other repeat units varied in number. However, size variation in the trnH-psbA region was also due to differences in the length of rps19, a gene or pseudogene that has previously been seen in the Cyperaceae genus Scirpus as in many other monocots (Wang et al. 2008). Alignments of Scirpus rps19 with trnH-psbA sequences from all three Carex sections suggest not only the absence of five codons in Carex near the 5′ end of the gene, but also the lack of 27 possible codons including the stop codon at the 3′ end of rps19 in section Griseae, but not in sections Deweyanae and Phyllostachyae. Even though this region was among the most variable assayed, difficulties with amplification, sequencing and alignment suggest that the trnH-psbA region does not provide a practical barcode for Carex or other land plants (Chase et al. 2007; Sass et al. 2007).

By comparison, the matK region was not only easy to amplify, sequence bidirectionally and align (no indels), but it was also more variable than the trnH-psbA region. Higher variability for the matK region has also been seen in other monocot genera (see Chase et al. 2007), a fact that likely accounts for the difficulties encountered with its amplification and sequencing (Fazekas et al. 2008). Only rpoB was more easily amplified and sequenced for all individuals, but due to low variability and poor species resolving power, we consider it largely impractical for barcoding purposes in Carex. The rpoC1 region amplified well, but it was difficult to sequence due to double priming by the reverse primer rpoC1–4 r. This primer could be redesigned, but the region as a whole was among the least variable and poorest species discriminators of all those examined indicating that it is not an effective barcode. Similar results have also been seen in other studies (Sass et al. 2007; Lahaye et al. 2008a; Newmaster et al. 2008; Fazekas et al. 2008) suggesting that rpoC1 may not be an effective barcode for land plants in general.

Barcoding loci: species resolution

As a single region barcode, matK resolves by far the greatest number of species and provides the highest statistical support for taxa of any marker (Fig. 1; Tables 2 and 3). In fact, no multigene combination greatly improves species resolution or statistical support over the use of matK alone (Tables 2 and 3), a result also seen in Lahaye et al. (2008a, b). This is even true when the noncoding region trnH-psbA is added to the analysis as only marginal gains in taxon resolution (53% vs. 57%) and support (27% vs. 36%) could be achieved over matK when trnH-psbA was part of a possible three (trnH-psbAmatK + rpoC1) or four locus barcode (trnH-psbA + matK +rpoB + rpoC1). Given the low variability of both rpoB and rpoC1 (a trait common for these loci; Chase et al. 2007; Fazekas et al. 2008; Newmaster et al. 2008), and the numerous difficulties with amplification and sequencing in rbcL and trnH-psbA (alignment included), only matK appears to be a viable barcode for Carex. Even though we were not able to sequence rbcL in this study despite using two different primer sets, it is unlikely that rbcL would significantly increase species resolution as it is typically three times less variable than matK (Hilu et al. 2003). In other words, it would most likely provide the same level of variation as detected in rpoB or rpoC1, but it would require more sequencing effort since comparisons are based on complete or nearly complete gene sequences (~1300 bp long; Chase et al. 2005; Newmaster et al. 2006). No matter which single or multilocus comparisons are made, it is clear that matK is providing most of the resolving power and statistical support observed in this study.

Although the performance of any one barcoding locus is taxon dependent, most studies have shown that matK and trnH-psbA are the most variable chloroplast markers and they consistently provide the best species resolution of proposed loci (e.g. Fazekas et al. 2008; Lahaye et al. 2008a; Newmaster et al. 2008). Fazekas et al. (2008) suggest that species resolution is not so dependent on the locus chosen as on number of loci used. However, if a reasonable number of loci (two to four) are used as a universal plant barcode, and the technical and analytical difficulties posed by noncoding regions such as trnH-psbA are to be avoided, the exclusion of matK from a multilocus barcode will greatly diminish its species discriminatory power in Carex, a genus whose species represent 0.5% to 0.9% of seed plant diversity (Govaerts 2001; Scotland & Wortley 2003). Based on our results, an rpoB + rpoC1 or trnH-psbA + rpoB + rpoC1 barcode would probably not resolve much more than 13% to 36% of Carex species, figures that are unlikely to increase with the addition of rbcL. Consequently, as with Lahaye et al. (2008a, b), we advocate that matK be chosen as part of a universal plant barcode from amongst the seven loci recently proposed (Pennisi 2007) despite the current technical problems associated with its amplification across land plants (Sass et al. 2007; Fazekas et al. 2008). A single universal primer set for matK may not exist, just as there is no single set of primers for rbcL or the animal barcode cox1; nevertheless, the practicality of a matK barcode will be diminished if it cannot be amplified and sequenced with considerably fewer then the ten primer pairs used by Fazekas et al. (2008).

Even if matK is included in a universal barcode, our results suggest that only 60% of Carex species would be resolved by the loci examined, and this would fall to only 38% if the criterion for successful species resolution used by Fazekas et al. (2008) is applied (i.e. ≥ 70% BS; Fig. 1; Tables 2 and 3). Unfortunately, these are probably high-end estimates, as the sections examined here are relatively small and taxonomically well known. For example, the greatest species resolution was achieved in sections Deweyanae and Phyllostachyae (60% to 100%), groups consisting of eight and 10 species respectively, with species-level boundaries in sect. Phyllostachyae having already been tested by multiple lines of morphological and molecular data (evolutionary significant units sensu Meyer & Paulay 2005). By comparison, sect. Griseae is considerably larger (18 of 21 taxa sampled) and its species have not been tested with genetic tools. In its case, only 57% of taxa clustered into single groups, even when four regions were combined. Bearing in mind that our species sampling represents the greatest for any plant genus thus far and that our sampling represents both broad lineages and numerous close species pairs within sections (the most difficult challenge for barcoding; Hollingsworth 2008; Newmaster et al. 2008), we consider it unlikely that the assayed barcodes will achieve a species resolution rate significantly greater than 60% in Carex and Cariceae given our current taxonomic understanding of these groups. Although future taxonomic changes may increase this figure, we expect initial species resolution rates to be worse due to several large and taxonomically difficult groups within the tribe. For example, the inclusion of members of Carex section Ovales Kunth in our analyses (85 species; Mastrogiuseppe et al. 2002 FNA), a large sedge clade that is part of a deeper lineage that appears to have undergone rapid speciation [i.e. Carex subg. Vignea (P. Beauv. ex Lestib. f.) Perterm.; Ford et al. 2006], would have reduced the assignment success of the barcodes examined (B.N. Chouinard et al., unpublished data).

Regional barcoding: a solution to poor species resolution?

Several previous studies have suggested that barcoding in plants could attain taxon assignment levels approximating 90% or greater (e.g. Kress & Erickson 2007; Lahaye et al. 2008a, b; Newmaster et al. 2008), although these studies have typically included phylogenetically distant taxa where infrageneric sampling was limited and/or regional in nature (Lahaye et al. 2008a, b; Newmaster et al. 2008). In contrast, Fazekas et al. (2008) sampled two to seven species for 32 genera across land plants and concluded that only 69–71% of taxa could be resolved with statistical confidence using a barcoding system based on a moderate number of plastid markers. However, Fazekas et al. (2008) considered these figures as an upper-end estimate of the maximum resolution possible since they considered their sampling of close relatives as sparse. Our results are even less encouraging (i.e. a maximum of 60% of species resolved, 38% with statistical confidence) and are probably a reflection of our greater infrageneric and especially infrasectional sampling (see Fazekas et al. 2008). This sampling strategy meant that more sister species were present in our analysis than in previous plant barcoding studies.

Figures suggesting that around 60% of Carex species would be resolvable using a barcoding system based on the loci examined are discouraging, although successful taxon assignment rates could be increased if a sample's regional origin was known. For example, a multilocus approach to identifying the Carex and Kobresia Willd. (Cariceae, Cyperaceae) of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago (J. LeClerc-Blain et al., in press) demonstrates that a two-locus barcode involving matK can achieve a 100% success rate. Moreover, preliminary data from the development of a matK database for all North American Carex, north of Mexico (c. 559 taxa), suggests that matK can correctly assign sequences to species > 60% to > 90% of the time, depending on which region of Canada is analysed (i.e. Eastern, Central, Western and Northern regions) (B.N. Chouinard et al., unpublished data). In the case of the taxa examined here, which are all woodland groups and whose highest common diversity occurs in Alabama (19 of the 34 taxa examined), a matK barcoding survey of Madison and Winston Counties where their syntopy is highest (R.F.C. Naczi, unpublished data), would achieve successful identification in 88% (seven of eight) and 86% (six of seven) of cases. Although assignment success is often highest where diversity is lowest (e.g. the Arctic; Taberlet et al. 2007; LeClerc-Blain et al., in press) and vice versa (B.N. Chouinard et al., unpublished data), such a system could increase the level of certainty in species assignments to a point where it may be deemed practical in applications involving nonspecialists (i.e. nonsystematists). Even if a regional approach could increase species assignment rates to an acceptable level, it would still adversely affect the utility of a barcoding system to nonspecialists since a specimen whose origins were entirely unknown could not be identified with confidence. This does not mean that an imperfect barcode would not be useful to nonspecialists as it could still significantly narrow the number of possible taxa, but for applications where a precise identification was required, further taxonomic expertise would remain indispensable.

Discovering plant species and evolution by DNA barcodes

Although correct taxon assignment was poor overall, matK did show promise as a means to help with the discovery of biodiversity. Unlike previous studies that have suggested that plant barcodes may have already discovered unrecognized diversity (Pennisi 2007; Lahaye et al. 2008a), our approach was to examine whether newly named taxa (< 25 years) could be resolved using barcodes, including taxa from a recently resolved cryptic group, the Carex willdenowii complex. Of the 15 species this represents with two or more individuals sampled in our analysis, 47% were resolved in matK dendrograms. Moreover, if we assume that future samples of Carex brysonii will cluster with the single individual sequenced here, as suggested by its long branch in upgma trees, matK was able to resolve 50% of these taxa. In the case of Carex timida and C. juniperorum, failure to resolve these newly discovered species could possibly be due to paraphyly, hybridization or incomplete lineage sorting. Interestingly, the branching of individuals of C. timida and C. juniperorum in our upgma tree largely reflects the populational relationships detected in the isozyme analyses of Ford & Naczi (2001), a pattern they attributed to paraphyly which may be common in plants (Rieseberg & Brouillet 1994). Admittedly, a new species barcode discovery rate of 47% to 50% of potential taxa is not incredibly high and the case of C. timida and C. juniperorum may be isolated, but they do suggest that once a complete matK database is available for the North American carices, as is currently underway (Chouinard et al. 2008), such a resource could be used to help test species hypotheses, serendipitously discover taxa, or even point to evolutionary phenomena that need further investigation when conducting taxonomic studies.

Phylogenetic utility of coding regions — comparisons with ITS

As previous studies have found, matK is by far the most variable (0.0–4.2%) coding region investigated providing approximately three times as many variable and informative characters than either rpoB or rpoC1. Although the low levels of sequence variation in the latter two genes (0.0–3.0%, rpoB; 0.0–2.7%, rpoC1) are not as low as has been seen in some groups (e.g. Myristicaceae; Newmaster et al. 2008), the resolution they provide is poor, suggesting they are not only poor barcoding regions for Carex, but that large scale phylogeny projects would best place their efforts in sequencing other potential chloroplast regions.

Given that the sections we investigated each represent one of the three major clades previously detected in tribal phylogenetic analyses (Starr & Ford 2009), it is not surprising that all of the genes investigated grouped sections into separate clades. In order to investigate the utility of matK at lower taxonomic levels, we compared parsimony analyses of species in Carex sect. Phyllostachyae with a sectional phylogeny constructed using ITS sequences from a previous study (Starr et al. 1999). This region is the most widely used marker for lower-level phylogenies in plants (Alvarez & Wendel 2003; Starr et al. 2003) and it is generally the most variable region that can be easily amplified and sequenced for nearly any living group. Because of its high variability levels and ease of amplification, the ITS region has been proposed as a barcode for plants (Kress et al. 2005) and it is recommended as a barcode for fungi (Seifert 2008). However, despite the desirable trait of being highly variable, several characteristics of the region make it a problematic barcode such as the presence of many paralogues, and in some cases, multiple functional copies (Chase et al. 2007; King & Roalson 2008). Surprisingly, at least for section Phyllostachyae, matK is not only a better phylogenetic marker than ITS, it is also a better barcode. MatK may produce fewer variable (40 vs. 55) and informative (17 vs. 25) characters than ITS, but it provides better resolution and support for clades as well as resolving two and a half to three times more species than ITS, and three times as many with ≥ 70% BS support. This result probably reflects the fact that the ITS region is not simply more variable than matK, its variable sites themselves are possibly evolving at a rate so rapid that it creates homoplasy even at the infrasectional level. The low consistency indices seen in tribal ITS phylogenies support such a conclusion as does the common finding of incongruence in comparisons of nrDNA and nrDNA vs. cpDNA partitions (Starr & Ford 2009) in Cariceae analyses among other reasons (King & Roalson 2008). Our results thus suggest that matK could make a significant contribution to resolving phylogeny at multiple taxonomic levels from generic relationships within Cariceae to infrasectional relationships within Carex.


The authors thank Bruce Ford (University of Manitoba) for his ongoing assistance in research on Carex and Cariceae systematics, and Roger Bull, Jessica LeClerc-Blain, and Jeffery Saarela from the Canadian Museum of Nature for help with this and ongoing barcoding projects. We would also like to thank Janet Topan (Canadian Centre for DNA Barcoding, University of Guelph) for help with DNA sequencing. We are grateful to the curators of the following herbaria for the use of their specimens: DOV, WIN. This research was supported by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada Discovery Grant to JRS.

Conflict of interest statement

The authors have no conflict of interest to declare and note that the funders of this research had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.