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Bob Hanner on DNA Barcodes

Bob Hanner works in the world’s oldest profession, he tells us. He’s a taxonomist. (He quotes Genesis 2:19 to make his point, where Adam names every living creature.) Bob’s quest is to name, classify and index as many species as possible – globally, roughly 1.7 million species have been named and categorized… but this is a small fraction of the 10 to 100m species biologists speculate actually exist.

Hanner’s fascination is with the idea of DNA barcoding. Paul Hebert’s work on mitochondrial DNA has taught us that animal species can be told apart via the COI subgene in cell’s mitochondria. While this technique doesn’t work on plants (they don’t diverge quickly enough in evolutionary terms), these sorts of DNA “barcodes” have allowed biologists to determine that half a dozen different species of leeches around the world were actually one species, spread throughout the world via human trade routes. These barcodes have also allowed biologists to discover that one species of butterfly were actually ten separate species, with different larval development cycles and food preferences.

Hanner envisions a handheld barcoder that can take a tissue sample, sequence the mitochondrial DNA, and upload data to a Google-like DNA search engine. In his vision, it’s a $10 purchase at Radio Shack, and that there’s a penny tax on each DNA reading, which goes towards a global effort to produce a taxonomy of all species. One immediate application for this technology? Studying the world’s dwindling fishing stocks, which are a critical source of protein for the developing world – are the larvae we see from food species of fish or other species? Are the fillets we see in the market from the species we think they’re from.

I now can’t tell whether a 4 gigapixel camera or a handheld DNA barcoder
is going first on my Christmas list this year.