Nov. 6, 2009 at 4:30 PM ET
Consortium for the Barcode of Life
|Color-coded genetic sequences serve as "DNA barcodes" for a hermit thrush (far left), an American robin, a bumblebee and a honeybee. The gray bars stand for genetic differences.|
DNA fingerprinting isn't just for humans anymore: The "barcodes of life" are being read in other species as well, and they're being used to crack down on smugglers, track down disease carriers and trace the effects of climate change.
About 350 experts from 50 countries will be meeting in Mexico over the next week to discuss the rising number of applications for the technology. One of the major items on the agenda is to seal a global deal to extend the DNA barcode system to plants.
That could help genetic sleuths to get a better handle on where timber is being harvested illegally, where herbal medicines really come from, and where plant diseases are being spread.
"Biodiversity scientists are using DNA technology to unravel mysteries, much like detectives use it to solve crimes," David Schindel, executive secretary of the Consortium for the Barcode of Life, said in a news release previewing the weeklong Mexico City meeting. "It is having a profound impact on our understanding of organisms in nature and how they interact with the environment."
The international consortium and the Instituto Biologia at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico are co-hosts of the meeting at the Mexican Academy of Sciences. Researchers will be sharing the success stories they've accumulated over the past six years.
DNA barcoding really got its start in 2003, when scientists agreed on a standard for fingerprinting a species' genetic code.
Anyone who's watched any modern-day cop show knows that DNA can serve to match a crime-scene sample with a suspect (or rule that suspect out as the perpetrator). But is there a quick, reliable way to determine from a DNA sample whether it came from a rare parrot or a common chicken?
The consortium's scientists settled on a 645-base-pair region of mitochondrial genetic code, known as the COI or COX1 gene, to serve as the standard fingerprint for a species. That region mutates quickly enough that you can tell the difference between closely related species, but slowly enough that individuals within a species have similar barcodes.
Here are just some of the applications cited by the consortium:
Eventually, scientists aim to develop a database of 5 million samples from 500,000 species. The project will almost certainly have public health benefits: Even now, researchers are collecting barcodes for disease-spreading mosquitoes in India, black flies that transmit river blindness disease in South America, and parasites that afflict frogs and livestock in Mexico and Central America.
DNA fingerprinting could contribute to an early warning system for the spread of disease, or help inspectors track down the source of food contamination. "This is an example of where new genetic technology can be transformative to society," George Amato, director of the Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics at the American Museum of Natural History, said in a recent report on barcoding.
For more examples of barcoding at work, check out this clickthrough gallery that highlights how DNA analysis can help document global biodiversity.Join the Cosmic Log team by signing up as my Facebook friend or following b0yle on Twitter. And pick up a copy of my new book, "The Case for Pluto." If you're partial to the planetary underdogs, you'll be pleased to know that I've just set up a Facebook fan page for "The Case for Pluto."