It’s big enough to attract 350 attendees from 50 nations to a third annual conference in Mexico City. It’s called DNA barcoding, and though its results and spreading use are controversial, that’s proving to be not much of a barrier.
The term DNA barcoding is not well known, but should be. It is, in a sense, a shorthand method for making genetic identification of a species. Animal organisms have some genetic material located outside of the nucleus in what are called mitochondria. (Technically, mitochondria are a characteristic feature of eukaryote cells.) This genetic material, mtRNA (mitochondrial DNA), provides a very short section of the DNA genome (the COI gene), which can with considerable reliability be used to identify species. The use of a single gene – the ‘barcode’ – makes the identification much quicker and less expensive, which is a big reason for its expanding popularity.
The big kicker for DNA barcoding is its usefulness in real-world applications such as law enforcement, trade management, and agriculture. A particularly fast growing application is in control of food import/export, where questions of safety and legality are important. The speed and low cost of DNA barcoding makes it possible, for example, to examine imported foods for containing insects, or for determining an illegal species.
Barcode experts continue to exercise previously demonstrated powers of their relatively young science in myriad ways – amassing information relevant to better agriculture, human health and environmental well-being while uncovering, for example, new instances of consumer fraud and helping to prosecute smugglers of wild bushmeat and other products made from endangered species.
In Mexico, scientists will seal a global agreement on the elusive challenge of how to do likewise reliably with plants, a historic breakthrough that may open the door to global crackdowns on illegal timber trading and better regulation of herbal medicines, among other potential uses.
“Biodiversity scientists are using DNA technology to unravel mysteries, much like detectives use it to solve crimes. It is having a profound impact on our understanding of organisms in nature and how they interact with the environment.”
The world’s largest barcode factory is in the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario at the University of Guelph in Canada, where DNA barcoding was first proposed and developed. Similar facilities are being created at the French Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle, as well as in the Netherlands and Poland.
Concerns about the accuracy of DNA barcoding continue to arise, mainly because it is possible for different species to have most of the same coding in their mtRNA.