What animal is that? Hold on, I’ll check the barcode

One of the biggest problems in cataloguing species is being able to tell whether a specimen is actually new or not. This week, for example, a sea eagle that had been believed to belong to a new species was discovered to be simply a variant on a known type.

It would all be so much easier if species came with barcodes that you could read with a desktop scanner. And with the official launch of the International Barcode of Life Project (iBOL), they will.

DNA barcoding is a way of identifying species using a short DNA sequence from a standard location on the genome. It cuts the time and cost of species identification, and allows the process to be fully automated.

“We are witnessing alarming rates of species extinction, but efforts to reverse that trend are hampered by huge gaps in our knowledge about the distribution and diversity of life,” says iBOL Scientific Director Paul Hebert.

“DNA barcoding promises a future where everyone will have rapid access to the names and biological attributes of every species on Earth.”

Over the past five years, one million barcode records representing almost 80,000 species have been generated. Now, with the launch of iBOL,  the DNA barcode reference library will be massively expanded and technologies created to read it, including a table-top barcoder.

By the end of the first phase in 2015, consortium members from more than 25 countries will have entered DNA barcode records from five million specimens – representing half a million species – into the interactive Barcode of Life Data System (BOLD) databank. The ultimate aim is to create a DNA barcode reference library for all of Earth’s animal, plant and fungal species.

“The International Barcode of Life is assembling a global network of taxonomists, biologists and geneticists to embark on the next great exploration of the natural world,” says Dr Christian Burks, president and CEO of the Ontario Genomics Institute and chair of the iBOL Consortium board of directors.

“It will bring about fundamental changes in the way we view Earth’s biodiversity and our relationship to it.”