DNA barcoding aims to protect species and food

Mon Nov 1, 2010 1:38am EDT
 
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By Natalie Armstrong

TORONTO (Reuters) - Call it a DNA digital Dewey Decimal System for all life on Earth.

Every species, from extinct to thriving, is set to get its own DNA barcode in an attempt to better track the ones that are endangered, as well as those being shipped across international borders as food or consumer products.

Researchers hope handheld mobile devices will be able to one day read these digital strips of rainbow-colored barcodes -- much like supermarket scanners -- to identify different species by testing tissue samples on site and comparing them with a digital database.

The International Barcode of Life Project (iBOL), which says it is the world's first reference library of DNA barcodes and the world's largest biodiversity genomics project, is being built by scientists using fragments of DNA to create a database of all life forms.

"What we're trying to do is to create this global library of DNA barcodes -- snippets, little chunks of DNA -- that permit us to identify species," Alex Smith, assistant professor of molecular ecology at the University of Guelph's Biodiversity Institute of Ontario, about 90 km (56 miles) west of Toronto.

So far DNA barcoding has helped identify the type of birds that forced last year's emergency landing of a flight on the Hudson River in New York. The researchers also discovered nearly one in four fish fillets are mislabeled in North America after referring to the library, which has 7,000 species of fish DNA barcodes, allowing the scientists to identify fillets that have been stripped of scales, skins and heads.

To get the barcodes, scientists use a short section of DNA extracted from a standardized region of tissue. Once the barcode is created, it's filed in the iBOL library.

Within a week, the barcode can be viewed publicly, online, by signing up for a free account at www.boldsystems.org, the site for Barcode of Life Datasystems (BOLD). Smith describes it as being like a label on a filing cabinet.   Continued...

 
<p>A handout combination image shows a barn owl (Tyto alba), the most widely distributed species of owl, and one of the most widespread of all birds and its DNA barcode. Every species, from extinct to thriving, is set to get its own DNA barcode in an attempt to better track the ones that are endangered, as well as those being shipped across international borders as food or consumer products. REUERS/International Barcode of Life/Handout</p>