Scientists begin project to catalog life with DNA barcodes

Of an estimated 10 million plant and animal species on Earth, less than a fifth have been identified and named. That might change, however, with a new bar-coding initiative launched today, which aims to use snippets of genetic material to characterize all living organisms in a standardized way, possibly allowing for faster discovery of new species. The information gathered during the cataloguing process will be collected in one large database, and some researchers hope the data will eventually be available via handheld devices, much like those used to scan barcodes at the supermarket, allowing for quick and easy identification of rare species. The bar-coding project may also aid in species conservation, says Paul Hebert of the University of Guelph in Ontario, especially in areas such as commercial fisheries: “DNA bar-coding could enable us to monitor quotas and bycatch and provide a more detailed understanding of fish and their ecological relationships.”