• Barcode Ireland Team

The International Barcode of Life

Updated: Oct 19, 2020

DNA Barcoding, inspired by the retail industry.

DNA Barcode resembelence.

Inspired by the retail industry where unique barcodes are used to identify and catalogue a huge array if diverse products, the International Barcode of Life (iBOL) is an incredible initiative which seeks to identify and catalogue the estimated 8.7 to 20 million varieties of plants, animals and fungi on earth which to date only 1.8 million have received formal descriptions. 

Canadian researcher Paul Herbert and his team from the University of Guelph Ontario, first proposed the DNA Barcoding system in a paper ‘Biological identifications through DNA Barcodes’ in 2003. The concept being that animal species could be distinguished by sequencing less than 1000 bases of mitochondrial DNA from a specimen. The inspiration for DNA barcoding came to Herbert in the late 1990s whilst in a supermarket looking at retail barcodes,

“It occurred to me that if the retail industry can use a few numbers to represent a vast array of products, why can’t we look at DNA the same way?”.

In 2010 Herbert spearheaded a consortium called the International Barcode of Life (iBOL), an $80 million effort based at Guelph that began to build a reference library of known species with their identifying sequences. This library now holds some 7.3 million barcode

records which are publicly accessible and which contain immensely valuable information about where and when the specimen was collected, which research team made the collection who the team leader was, genus, family and species information.

Fast forward to 2019, when with additional monetary support and reciprocal services from its 30 international partners, iBOL embarked upon a 7-year follow-up named BIOSCAN. This further initiative will gather specimens and study species interactions at 2500 sites around the world with the aim of expanding its reference library by 15 million barcode records - 90% of them coming from previously undescribed taxon. In other words according to Herbert, "One of the primary goals will be species discovery”. Whereas in the past it might have taken years or even decades to confirm some organisms as new species, the software will identify a sample barcode which does not match existing records for further scrutiny as a potential new species.

This data will then be used to monitor the effects of pollution, land-use changes, and global warming on biodiversity, "We will be able to track life on the planet the way we track the weather.” says Herbert.

Benefits of DNA Barcoding

Benefits of DNA barcoding include public health initiatives such as the control of diseases for example malaria and other insect-carried diseases. Currently projects are operating in the collection of specimens of mosquitoes in India, black flies in South America which transmit river blindness and parasites which afflict livestock in Central America and Mexico. Other potential benefits include ecosystem monitoring for conservation and climate change research, resource management and control of alien and invader species.

Closer to home and five years on from the horse meat scandal, The National Botanic Gardens of Ireland, in collaboration with Queens University Belfast, used DNA barcoding to determine evidence of food fraud, in which samples of ground herbs were analysed to determine the species.

EAN and UPC barcode disruptor technology revolutionised the retail sector and worldwide trade, DNA barcodes are doing likewise for science and conservation - eminently so.

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