New Zealand scientists are participating in an ambitious international research project that plans to identify every living creature in the world using genetic ‘barcodes’, according to Massey University news.

Borrowing a concept from scannable barcodes on supermarket products, this project will develop an electronic inventory to identify every organism in the world, but will use a molecular barcode instead of a black and white stripe

Participating in the Barcode of Life project will be a group of New Zealand scientists led by Massey University’s Professor David Lambert from the Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Evolution and Ecology.

Professor Lambert’s team will create DNA barcodes for New Zealand’s flora and fauna, beginning with native birds and later including other animals, plants, insects and fungi. The team will also use DNA from ancient bones and soft tissues to identify extinct birds, such as moa, and their genetic similarity to modern species.

DNA barcoding to go backwards in time is an important tool to measure past levels of biodiversity, Professor Lambert told Massey News. “We can only interpret the effects that humans are having on the plants and animals of the Earth by knowing precisely what was here in the past,” he said.

The DNA barcoding project will make use of the cytochrome c oxidase gene (CO1), which codes for an enzyme involved in the cell’s energy conversion system. The CO1 gene is present in all animals and, in most cases, has a species-specific DNA sequence that varies between, but not within, different species.

initial research by Canadian zoologist Paul Hebert from the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada has shown that a portion of this gene can be ‘scanned’ to identify species, similar to using a barcode to classify supermarket products. The hope is even that a hand-held scanner may be able to be developed to identify the barcode of species while researchers are in the field.

Allan Wilson Centre researchers will sample genetic barcodes from every New Zealand bird species and use them to assist the conservation of endangered species, including kiwi, North Island Saddleback, and Black Robins. Their results will be combined with other research groups from around the world to create a standardized electronic database. According to the Allan Wilson Centre newsletter, “Barcodes of Life” is intended as the pilot version of a database that might serve as the basis for a Global Bio identification System for animals.

“Biodiversity, conservation, and biosecurity management can only be conducted against a background of the known species composition of ecosystems, habitats, or countries,” Professor Lambert told Massey News.

The practical benefits will be wide reaching, Professor Lambert told Massey News. Data will be stored for fast and easy retrieval and are expected to have valuable application in health, national border control, conservation management, food safety and environmental monitoring. These codes could also have a vital role in foiling bioterrorism.

To date, taxonomists have identified about 1.7 million species, but Barcode of Life project has the ambitious aim of sampling the genetic barcodes of all 10 million species of life on Earth. The project will cost an estimated US$2.5 million and is expected to take of 20 years to complete.

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