In the 250 years since the Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus first started classifying organisms, taxonomists have formally described roughly 1.7...
In the 250 years since the Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus first started classifying organisms, taxonomists have formally described roughly 1.7 million species. Although seemingly large, this number represents only a small fraction of the estimated tens of millions of species on the planet. Moreover, human activities are causing the extinction of species hundreds of times faster than the natural rate of extinction found in the fossil record. Fully one-third of all species on the planet may be gone by the end of this century—many without ever having been studied or, more importantly, protected .
DNA barcoding, developed in 2003 to identify species, has helped to rejuvenate taxonomic research. The science of taxonomy is key to understanding and monitoring biodiversity . The technique is based on a simple but powerful observation: that sequence diversity, in short, standardized gene regions (i.e., DNA barcodes), can serve as a tool to identify known species and potentially discover new ones. Moreover, DNA barcoding allows researchers to develop a system for species identification based on digital characters, eventually allowing for automated identifications, thereby promising to improve the capacity to identify, monitor, and manage biodiversity, with profound societal and economic benefits. It also raises the possibility of identifying the vectors of zoonotic diseases as well as the disease organisms themselves.
Using DNA barcoding technology, researchers seek to build a library of short, standardized pieces of DNA from all of Earth's species—an admittedly massive undertaking that would enable the scientific community to quickly and accurately assess the Earth's biodiversity and monitor it over time . The promise of this technology has captured the attention of the scientific community, government agencies, and the general public. Widespread support has led to nearly US$100 million in grants that have been used to mobilize a large research program in DNA barcoding and establish the Consortium for the Barcode of Life (CBOL; http://www.barcoding.si.edu), with 200 member organizations in 50 countries. A national research network in Canada has directed its efforts towards simplifying the protocols for DNA barcode acquisition, gathering barcode records, and developing the informatics platform needed for the curation and analysis of barcode records. The latter effort has led to the creation of BOLD, the Barcode of Life Data Systems (http://www.boldsystems.org), which now has more than 5,000 registered users and holds barcode records for more than 850,000 specimens, representing approximately 100,000 species. Individual organisms are placed in museum collections, and their extracted DNA resides in a secure repository, so that future generations can study them.
To coordinate these global efforts, an alliance of researchers and biodiversity conservation organizations plan to launch the International Barcode of Life Project (iBOL; http://www.ibolproject.org) in October 2010 the International Year of Biodiversity. The project will bring together 26 countries to broaden and strengthen DNA barcoding research with potential social, cultural, and economic, implications—direct and indirect—with a special focus on developing countries. Because the true stewards of biological diversity are at the local level, it is imperative that they be included in the process. This means obtaining consent from the competent authority before collecting specimens and barcoding, sharing the resulting data with local people, and building capacity to use the new knowledge generated. Barcoding appears to fall under the scope of “access to genetic resources and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits” in the Convention on Biological Diversity. Barcoders must disclose up-front foreseeable consequences of their research (both intended and unintended) so that governments at national and state levels can develop informed policies.
To date, researchers in developed countries have largely performed DNA barcoding, even though most of the Earth's biodiversity is found in the tropical and subtropical regions. The iBOL aims to rectify this situation by collaborating with researchers and local communities in developing countries to retrieve DNA barcodes from 5 million specimens representing 500,000 of Earth's species within the first five years of its operations. Work will focus on taxonomic groups targeted for analysis by iBOL because they deliver key ecosystem services (e.g., pollinators), because they are pests (e.g., termites), because they are harvested (e.g., fishes, forest trees), or because they are important targets for conservation programs (e.g., mammals, reptiles). A number of teams in developing countries will deploy scientific expertise and the built-up barcode library to apply barcoding as a tool for environmental or ecosystem management.