Building a DNA-based identification system for life

Knowing how many species exist, where they occur and how to tell them apart is central to human interactions with nature. And understanding which are common, rare, harmful or edible is based on recognising which individuals belong to which species. Yet, telling species apart is often difficult. Recent estimates suggest that of at least 10 million species on Earth less than 20 per cent have been recognised and classified. Even specimens from known species can be difficult to identify without the right expertise or if the material to be identified is processed or juvenile or fragmentary. A new volume published by the Royal Society is set to overcome hurdles of the past and put scientists on-track in the race to classify and categorise life of Earth.

 Marking the first decade of DNA barcoding science, ‘From DNA barcodes to biomes, is a special issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. It includes 16 articles from different research groups making the point that this is the way forward in understanding life on this planet. DNA barcoding addresses the various challenges by employing a standardised set of DNA regions to tell the world’s species apart. The approach is cost-effective, automatable and is already deployed on an industrial scale.

 “Although biologists have been naming species for 250 years, 90 per cent of all multicellular organisms await registration, suggesting that a complete census could require a millennium. Current threats to biodiversity make this long wait unacceptable. DNA barcoding will not only allow a complete census of life in two or three decades; it will make it possible to track biodiversity changes with precision and will allow anyone to identify any organism on the spot,” said Professor Paul Hebert, Director, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics, Biodiversity Institute of Ontario, University of Guelph, one of three Co-editors of ‘From DNA barcodes to biomes’, and Scientific Director for the International Barcode of Life project.

 “How many species live in a gram of soil, a litre of seawater, or a hectare of rain forest? How do these species interact and how are they impacted by climate change and various human activities? Answering these questions requires robust methods for species identification. DNA barcoding combines advances in evolutionary biology and genomics with informatics tools to empower global biodiversity analysis. The articles in this issue of the Philosophical Transactions not only reveal the diverse scientific and socio-economic applications of DNA barcoding, but the emergence of the Barcode of Life as the first megascience project in biodiversity science” added Professor Mehrdad Hajibabaei, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics & Department of Integrative Biology, University of Guelph, Co-editor of ‘From DNA barcodes to biomes’, and expert in Environmental DNA metabarcoding.

 “Life on Earth is complicated and telling species apart can be extremely difficult. The joint efforts of  thousands of laboratories around the world to build a shared DNA-based identification resource has been a major step toward this challenge. The fast-moving pace of DNA sequencing technologies offers great promise in the years ahead to build on these successes and further enhance our capacity to understand diversity in the natural world and provide tools for science, conservation and sustainable use of natural resources”, concluded Professor Peter Hollingsworth, Director of Science, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Co-editor of ‘From DNA barcodes to biomes’, and expert on plant DNA barcoding.


The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is a charity (registration number SC007983)