Cracking the Code
DATELINE: 2014. Kennedy Airport, New York, NY. A well-dressed man chats with customs agents after his flight from Brazil—until his carry-on suitcase emits a weak squawk. His bag is opened. Inside, dozens of brilliant turquoise parrots are sardined together, some dead, all with their beaks banded shut—except for the one bird that sounded the alarm.
A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent inserts a shred of tissue from a loose feather into a device the size of a cell phone. Within 60 seconds DNA is extracted from the tissue and a specific snippet is isolated and sequenced. Two minutes later a long, multicolored barcode appears on the screen. A database match is found, listing species, home range—and endangered status. The man is arrested for transporting protected wildlife.
Sci-fi? Though the timing may be optimistic, an international coalition of scientists is working to make this a reality. Within a few years anyone—from a park ranger or a biologist in the field to agents at border crossings—will be able to obtain a rapid genetic ID using cells from lizard skin, bird feathers, fish fins, or tufts of fur. “In the late 1990s we selected a segment of DNA that evolves quickly enough to delineate species,” says Paul Hebert, a population geneticist at Ontario’s University of Guelph. This gene sequence is being used in an effort to create supermarket-type barcodes for much of the animal life on earth by 2014. These DNA barcodes will be posted in an online library compiled by the Canadian Centre for DNA Barcoding, which is a member of the Consortium for the Barcode of Life (CBOL), a group of 150 universities, museums, zoos, aquariums, and other organizations from 45 countries.
As a result, wildlife biologists trudging through remote rainforests are working with white-coated lab technicians and DNA-sequencing robots in a quest to discover new species. Says George Powell, a senior conservation scientist with the World Wildlife Fund, “Barcode analysis would greatly speed up species identification, allowing conservationists to assess biodiversity in poorly known places such as the Amazon Basin much more quickly.”
This technology has already led to discoveries that some lookalike animals are actually cousins. After barcoding 93 percent of all U.S. and Canadian birds, scientists have identified 15 new genetically distinct species. By the time they complete their global DNA inventory in 2011, they expect to have uncovered at least 1,000 more.
Today roughly 1.7 million organisms are known to science out of a possible 10 million to 100 million. Traditional taxonomy is a slow, costly process, requiring field observation of an animal’s behavior, anatomy, shape, and size. But sophisticated labs with robotic DNA extracting and sequencing machines can produce barcode IDs for up to 1,000 samples a day for about $3 each. Hebert claims that by year’s end it will be possible to do 50,000 in a few days, and thinks a handheld device that would take just minutes could be available within five years.
So far CBOL has barcoded more than 300,000 fresh, frozen, and museum samples. It will cost about $1 billion to collect DNA and code 10 million animals. Biologists believe that finding out what truly lives in a given region will change the face of wildlife conservation. Says Lee Weigt, a geneticist at the Smithsonian Institution, “You can’t make decisions about what to conserve if you don’t know what you’ve got.”—Sharon Guynup
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