Sydney Grammar Yr 10 & 11 students reveal new findings

Dr Andrew Mitchell with students Michael Sacks, William Zhan, Michael O'Dea and Patrick Wan, who tested the fish
Dr Andrew Mitchell with students Michael Sacks, William Zhan, Michael O'Dea and Patrick Wan, who tested the fish. Image: Steven Siewert
© Sydney Morning Herald

28 June, 2019. Sydney: The Australian Museum’s DNA scientists teamed up with Year 10 and 11 students from Sydney Grammar School in 2016/17 to investigate the accuracy of fish labelling in Sydney which has led to some interesting and ‘fishy’ results.

The students visited two fish retailers in Sydney, collecting 68 fish samples for testing. The results of their research have now been published in the international life and environmental sciences journal PeerJ:

While only the second fish labelling survey using DNA barcodes ever conducted in Australia, the study’s main objective was to give students firsthand experience in scientific research using DNA barcoding technology.

The students examined whether the names used by retailers matched the Australian Fish Names Standard (AFNS) and secondly, whether the fish species had been correctly identified using the Sydney Grammar Science Labs and the Australian Museum DNA labs.

Under the guidance of AM DNA team member (and entomologist) Dr Andrew Mitchell and Sydney Grammar Second Master Biology, Anna Rothbart, the students performed their own lab work, sampling the fish fillets, extracting DNA, and amplifying the DNA barcode gene so it could be sent away for DNA sequencing.

“Each sample’s DNA barcode sequence was then analysed by the students using an online platform called the Barcode of Life Data System. Not only did the students gain hands-on experience with DNA techniques, they contributed useful data to a growing international DNA database,” Anna Rothbart said.

Dr Mitchell said the results of the students’ limited sample suggests that Sydney fish retailers attempt to implement the voluntary fish name standards but don’t always get it right.

“The student’s research found that 60% of the product names used by the fish retailers were completely compliant with the AFNS. If you exclude minor errors, this figure rose to 78%. Examples of the non-compliant samples included Bream, which could be any of eight species such as Black Bream or Frypan Bream, and Shark, which could be any of the 13 commercial shark species or any of the more than 100 species in Australian waters,” Dr Mitchell said.

Using DNA barcodes, the students also found that 7% of the fish samples collected were misidentified.

“Accurate identification of fish species is necessary for sustainable management of fisheries, and for consumer protection. While our findings show there is some room for improvement, this rate is well below the global rate of fish mislabelling of up to 30%,” Dr Mitchell added.

The success of this science education project however was its ability to engage school students in DNA barcoding research in a highly practical and engaging learning experience that produced real scientific data.

Rothbart explained that the project is highly applicable to the new HSC Biology syllabus implemented by the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) in 2018, and provides opportunity for an ideal ‘Depth Study’ (as introduced in the new syllabus).

“The students are afforded the chance to further develop their interest in Biology, take ownership of their learning and witness the relevance and influence of Biology in their lives,” Rothbart said.

“This study was an excellent example of collaboration in the scientific community leading to meaningful research and student outcomes. Sydney Grammar looks forward to continuing to work closely with the AM in the development of future projects,” Rothbart added.

“This project provided senior high school students with an opportunity to be involved in current and relevant research using the latest DNA technology at the Australian Museum Research Institute while interacting with our leading DNA experts,” Kim McKay AO, Director & CEO of the AM said.

“The students performed the bulk of the laboratory and analytical work, giving them a real-life experience of science, and perhaps most importantly encouraging possible future scientists to gather and analyse scientific data while engaging directly with issues of biodiversity, genetics, and sustainability,” Ms McKay said.

The AM plans to expand the program in future to analyse larger sample sizes and to also examine fish mislabelling in restaurants.

“Surveys in other countries suggest that restaurants generally show lower levels of compliance than retailers, but we did not sample restaurants. Broader surveys are needed before generalising these results,” Mitchell said.

The only other Australian study to examine the accuracy of fish labelling was undertaken in Tasmania by the CSIRO with the results, published in 2015, finding no confirmed fish mislabelling in Hobart.

This science education DNA project was funded by the Australian Museum Research Institute and Sydney Grammar School.


Could do better! A high school market survey of fish labelling in Sydney, Australia, using DNA barcodes. PeerJ:

Authors: Dr. Andrew Mitchell, Anna Rothbart, Dr. Greta Frankham, Dr. Rebecca N. Johnson and Linda E. Neaves. 2019.

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