Scientists treat DNA like barcodes in global database

TORONTO — Scientists are hoping advanced handheld technology will accelerate a project to compile genetic information in a global database that would distinguish plant and animal species the way retail barcodes identify the products on store shelves.

Researchers from Canada and around the world

are participating in a consortium called the Barcode of Life, which aims to create and manage a repository of DNA sequences. A recently developed technique analyzes tissue samples about the size of a housefly’s leg to find a series of “”base pairs”” of DNA that is unique to each species. By codifying the various life forms, scientists say they could become more adept at stopping the spread of emerging diseases, pinpoint the ingredients in feed stock that leads to Mad Cow disease and possibly combat bioterrorism.

In a lecture last Sunday hosted at the University of Toronto by the Royal Canadian Institute for the Advancement of Science, University of Guelph professor Paul Hebert said the U.S. military is working on sequencing applications that can be used on a handheld DNA barcode reader. The devices will amplify tissue samples fed into them for inspection.

“”Kids are going to start getting these in their (Christmas) stocking,”” he joked, pointing to a picture of a small device about the size of a BlackBerry pager with a hole for inserting tissue. “”They’ll go in their back yards, get some samples and then run to the Internet to see what they are.””

The Barcode of Life Consortium has already gotten some funding for its work from the Sloan Foundation, which Hebert estimated would cost $1 billion or more to complete. So far the Barcode of Life database contains information on 10,000 species and has already helped identify new species within the Sandpiper family of birds. Through a study using specimen samples from the Royal Ontario Museum, Hebert and others discovered distinct bar codes for four species that had been improperly lumped in with other species. The results from a DNA barcode scan indicate the percentage of genetic difference between one species and another — for example, an eight to 10 per cent difference between the human species and chimps.

Hebert said scientists believe there are somewhere between 10 to 100 million species of life on Earth, but human beings can recall only about 1,000 of them. That’s why a universal, Web-based database would be so important, he said. “”Our human CPUs weren’t designed to handle all that information,”” he said.

DNA barcoding is expected to be more accurate than the current morphological keys used to identify species today, but its adoption may in part be linked to cost. Right now traditional analysis of mosquitoes for West Nile investigation costs about $2 per specimen, Hebert said. Doing the same analysis from a DNA barcode would cost about $5.

Mark Stoeckle, a molecular ecologist at Rockefeller University in New York City and a colleage of Hebert’s, said anything you can get a machine to do is going to be cheaper than having a person do it in the long term.

“”I think it’s a combinaton of technological advances plus what the demand is,”” he said. “”If there’s a market for it, I think the price can come down radically.””

Hebert said he has also received some funding from National Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and expects to see national Barcode of Life networks established to gather specimen data. This information will most likely be centrally managed by the National Centre for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), which already hosts the GenBank repository of gene information.

“”This is a doable task,”” he said.

Stoeckle said contributions to the database will likely come from focused research projects on specific species, like scorpions or orangutans.

“”The standardization has both technological benefits — you could make something less expensive — and it has scientific benefits that you can compare results across very diverse kinds of species,”” he said. “”It will be added on to efforts by taxonomists or biologists who are already studying one group or another.””

About 20 organizations have already signed on to the Barcode of Life, including many natural history museums. Next year will also see the first conference devoted to DNA barcoding held in London, England.

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