Zebras are naturally barcoded. Photo via wwarby via Flickr Creative Commons
We've heard of barcoding trees to prevent deforestation, and tagging animals to track them for scientific purposes is an everyday practice. But what about barcoding the DNA of all animals across the planet to protect them from illegal poaching, trapping or over-hunting? The International Barcode of Life project aims to do just that by assigning a barcode to each individual species' unique DNA so that one day, anyone with a special scanner can read the DNA and know exactly what species they're dealing with. From fish-mongers' stalls to the distribution of an endangered species, the new database may be able to save species and keep a watch on our food supplies. The iBOL calls itself the "largest biodiversity genomics initiative ever undertaken" and it certainly seems like a reasonable thing to say. The goal of the project is to build an online, open access database of every single living thing on earth -- like the Encyclopedia of Life -- but listed by barcoded DNA. The project explains the process in simplified terms: researchers take a small sample of a species DNA, and codes it so that it essentially turns into a barcode like what we find at the supermarket.
"By enabling automated, rapid and inexpensive species identifications, iBOL will transform biodiversity science and its applications throughout society," the project states in a press release.
"We are witnessing alarming rates of species extinction," said iBOL Scientific Director Paul Hebert, "but efforts to reverse that trend are hampered by huge gaps in our knowledge about the distribution and diversity of life. DNA barcoding promises a future where everyone will have rapid access to the names and biological attributes of every species on Earth."
Already over 87,000 species have been barcoded within the non-profit project. Over 25 countries are involved in helping build up the database, and the project expects that by the end of the first phase in 2015, over half a million species will be part of the Barcode of Life Data System.
The purpose of and possibilities for this project are huge. For example, the documentary The Cove revealed that dolphin meat is often packaged as the meat of other whales or fish, so people aren't aware of what they're really eating. The problem has even been found with whale meat being sold to customers in an LA sushi restaurant. The ability to quickly scan samples and identify the DNA in the database will save time in dealing with such issues. And this is only one very small example of the possibilities.
Mother Nature Network reports that the DNA barcode project can help streamline shipments of animal products over international boarders, and, more importantly, ensure that those products are what they claim to be.
"Obviously trade in endangered species, in terms of the black market, is second only to narcotics right now," Bob Hanner, associate director of the International Barcode of Life project, told MNN. "So it's a big deal to be able to identify if something is farmed alligator skin or endangered Cuban crocodile when it is involved in international commerce, and once it's tanned into a leather, these things can be very challenging."
There are nearly 2 million species identified by science, so assigning a barcode to each of them is no small task. But the ability to quickly identify an animal accurately by its DNA can be a huge help in species conservation.
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