International Journal of Legal Medicine

, Volume 131, Issue 1, pp 1–19 | Cite as

Poisonous or non-poisonous plants? DNA-based tools and applications for accurate identification

  • Valerio Mezzasalma
  • Ioannis Ganopoulos
  • Andrea Galimberti
  • Laura Cornara
  • Emanuele Ferri
  • Massimo Labra


Plant exposures are among the most frequently reported cases to poison control centres worldwide. This is a growing condition due to recent societal trends oriented towards the consumption of wild plants as food, cosmetics, or medicine. At least three general causes of plant poisoning can be identified: plant misidentification, introduction of new plant-based supplements and medicines with no controls about their safety, and the lack of regulation for the trading of herbal and phytochemical products. Moreover, an efficient screening for the occurrence of plants poisonous to humans is also desirable at the different stages of the food supply chain: from the raw material to the final transformed product. A rapid diagnosis of intoxication cases is necessary in order to provide the most reliable treatment. However, a precise taxonomic characterization of the ingested species is often challenging. In this review, we provide an overview of the emerging DNA-based tools and technologies to address the issue of poisonous plant identification. Specifically, classic DNA barcoding and its applications using High Resolution Melting (Bar-HRM) ensure high universality and rapid response respectively, whereas High Throughput Sequencing techniques (HTS) provide a complete characterization of plant residues in complex matrices. The pros and cons of each approach have been evaluated with the final aim of proposing a general user’s guide to molecular identification directed to different stakeholder categories interested in the diagnostics of poisonous plants.


Alkaloids DNA barcoding Food supply chain Molecular identification Poison centres Secondary metabolites 


Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.ZooPlantLab, Department of Biotechnology and BiosciencesUniversity of Milano-BicoccaMilanItaly
  2. 2.Institute of Applied Biosciences, CERTHThermiGreece
  3. 3.Department of Genetics and Plant Breeding, School of AgricultureAristotle University of ThessalonikiThessalonikiGreece
  4. 4.DISTAVUniversità di GenovaGenoaItaly
  5. 5.FEM2 Ambiente s.r.l.MilanItaly

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