DNA barcoding identifies mystery meat and so much more

Imagine this: Authorities in Cameroon seize a batch of bushmeat destined for a nearby market. Now they need to figure out what the dry, shriveled morsels of meat and skin are: An endangered species such as gorilla or a mere rodent? Enter DNA barcoding, a way of identifying species based on a short string of DNA that was pioneered by Canadian evolutionary biologist Paul Hebert in 2003.
The concept is surprisingly simple: Each species has a unique genetic identity that can be unmasked by sequencing part of a single gene called CO1. (CO1 is found in mitochondria and present in all living creatures, from plants to humans.) That unique DNA sequence can be used to identify a species in the same way that a supermarket scanner uses a UPC barcode to identify a product. Better still, it’s fast, cheap and accurate.

Recognizing the power of his new tool, Hebert launched the Barcode of Life initiative to catalog the planet’s biodiversity—approximately 100 million species. Since then, barcoding has ushered in a paradigm shift in science and snowballed into a massive global effort, helping scientists in the race against extinction. Tens of thousands of DNA barcodes are now deposited into public databases every year.
Combating the illegal trade in bushmeat is just one of many ways in which scientists are using DNA barcoding to solve real-world problems. Another is ecosystem monitoring. A group of Canadian researchers just won a $3-million grant to set up an early warning system for environmental damage. Using the country’s largest national park as their lab, they will monitor the resident bacteria, plants and animals, which are exquisitely sensitive to environmental change. It’s a twist on the canary-in-a-coal-mine strategy of old. Here, DNA barcoding will help track changes to the populations of these organisms, which will in turn signal changes to their freshwater or terrestrial habitats. The hope is that scientists will eventually be able to identify the culprit, be it contamination from nearby mines or climate change.  

Image: American Museum of Natural History

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