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Why You Should Care About The Quest To Put DNA Barcodes On Every Species

Jan 6 2014, 4:36pm CST | by , in News

Why You Should Care About The Quest To Put DNA Barcodes On Every Species
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At first glance, the rather grandiose-sounding International Barcode of Life (IBOL) project seems an arcane scientific exercise.

But the database – which aims to create unique DNA identification “barcodes” for more than 5 million specimens, or about 500,000 of the earth’s 1.8 million species by the end of 2015 – could play a role in commercial greentech applications ranging from food labeling to tracking invasive species to bio-monitoring at oil and natural gas facilities.

The project also offers another poignant demonstration of the role that Big Data and mobile apps might play in research into the impact of climate change on endangered species and habits – both Google and Microsoft are also busy at work on environmental and species cataloging initiatives that stand to benefit from their processing might.

In this case, the IBOL is collaborating with SAP, which (among other things) has helped it develop a field cataloging app that could accelerate the pace of specimen tracking. The IBOL notes:

“Few taxonomists can reliably diagnose even 1,000 species, and that means that we will need up to 100,000 taxonomists simply to sustain the ability to recognize Earth’s 10 to 100 million species, once they have all been described. It is this stark reality that is driving a new approach to species recognition called DNA barcoding.”

The barcoding starts with sample collection: from places like natural history museums, zoos, botanical gardens, seed banks and so on. The DNA markers for specimens are extracted the tissue, replicated and then sequenced to represent the nucleic acids the sample contains. As each barcode sequence is created, it is added to the database and used to help identify unknown specimens.

The mobile app from SAP turns all of us into collectors: it uses the software company’s existing capabilities in genome analysis to offer insights into stuff that you might find in your backyard (at least if you reside in or travel to one of the 26 countries participating in the IBOL project). You can upload an image and send in an actual sample to find out what’s what. Your curiosity benefits the collection process (the image to the right below, taken from an SAP presentation, shows some example screens from the app).

“We are encouraging people other than scientists to crowdsource the collection,” said Sarah McMullin, part of the emerging technologies team at SAP Labs Canada. “What you get back is the DNA barcode and an identification of that item.”

The SAP app isn’t the only mobile app that has been developed for the IBOL initiative. There’s also one from the Coastal Marine Biolabs Integrative Biosciences Program, specifically focused on fish species collection and identification.

The IBOL project actually has been around for almost five years; the research collaboration funded by Genome Canada and driven by scientists at the University of Guelph in Waterloo, Ontario. SAP got involved with the project to explore the commercialization potential, McMullin notes, and it has begun discussing these ideas with existing customers.

For example, the IBOL database might be used by consumer packaged goods companies seeking to verify the source of ingredients. Similarly, it could off an independent backup of the types of biomaterials sourced near oil and gas production sites, as a means of tracking the environmental impact.

“You need reference libraries so you can associate these applications with the knowledge we have about living things,” said Sujeevan Ratnasingham, vice chair of informatics at IBOL. While the current mobile app being developed by SAP helps with cataloging, the holy grail is to develop a mobile identification tool that works in real time, Ratnasingham said. “We are looking to the biotech industry to build out the other part of this,” he said.

Right now, the IBOL is about 68 percent of the way toward its catalog goal for the end of 2015. Not surprisingly, given the headquarters location, researchers in Canada have logged the most flora and fauna. Now, it’s time for businesses to really start thinking about the commercial potential for all of this information. “We are in the process of technology transfer and getting this out to industry,” Ratnasingham said.

Source: Forbes

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