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DNA barcoding: a new ‘master key’ for identifying species?

December 5, 2011

Crick's original DNA sketch (1953). Image: Science Photo Library

DNA barcoding – identifying the species of an animal through its DNA, much like a supermarket scanner reads a barcode – may sound like a concept from a dystopian futuristic film.  However,  recent work culminating in the Fourth International Barcode of Life conference last week suggests the technology holds rich possibilities for species identification, for scientists and consumers alike.

In essence, if a ‘master reference library’ of species DNA can be assembled and made available, then this can be used to identify an animal using a short snippet of its DNA.  This data is currently being assembled – The Barcode of Life database currently holds reference DNA for over 167,000 species, and is growing rapidly.

The concept has been gaining traction since it was suggested in a 2003 article by Canadian scientist Paul Hebert and provides scientists with the ability to identify species in previously tricky situations, such as from predator’s dung, animals trapped in permafrost, or microbes in water (which in turn can indicate water quality).

There are also likely to be benefits for consumers looking to be sure of the food they eat and the medicines they take.  For example, restaurants could use the technology to authenticate the provenance of the fish they buy.  In October 2011, the US Food and Drug Administration approved the technology for just this purpose.

The public health and biodiversity conservation value of barcoding is stated in the press release issued by the conference: “In 2007, several people became seriously ill from eating illegally imported toxic pufferfish from China that had been mislabeled as monkfish to circumvent U.S. import restrictions. Endangered species are also sold as more common fish varieties”.

More information:

Barcode of Life website
WIRED article on barcoding.

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