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DNA barcoding: from fruit-flies to puffer fish

With two "barcode factories," one at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and the other at the University of Guelph in Canada, the group aims to have barcoded the DNA of more than 500,000 living species within the next five years.
by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) Sept 14, 2007
Hundreds of experts in DNA barcoding meet in Taiwan next week for a major conference on this young, cutting-edge science which could have wide-ranging implications for health and the environment.

Major advances in this field could be used to improve public health, consumer protection and food safety and will be discussed by some 350 experts from 46 countries at the seminar in Taipei from Tuesday to Thursday.

"Presenters at the Taipei conference will show how barcoding is expanding our knowledge of nature and is simultaneously providing tangible, specific and significant benefits to society," said organizer David Schindel.

Scientists say that DNA barcoding, which is a technique for characterizing a species using only a short DNA sequence, has many practical applications.

For example it can help remove illegal fish and timber supplies from global markets, get rid of pests such as mosquitos and even reduce the numbers of collisions between birds and planes.

The Washington-based Consortium for the Barcode of Life was set up in 2003, and now includes some 160 organizations.

At its first conference in London in 2005, the consortium's data banks held some 33,000 DNA references belonging to some 12,700 species.

Today it counts more than 290,000 DNA samples from some 31,000 species, including about 20 percent of the world's estimated 10,000 bird species and 10 percent of the 35,000 estimated marine and freshwater fish species.

With two "barcode factories," one at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and the other at the University of Guelph in Canada, the group aims to have barcoded the DNA of more than 500,000 living species within the next five years.

Scientists involved in the classification of things "have documented a small portion of the world's plant and animal species over the past 300 years; DNA barcoding adds a fast, objective and repeatable approach to this enormous task that can shift the enterprise into a higher gear," said Schindel, the consortium's executive director.

For example, the US Food and Drug Administration has been working with the consortium to barcode potentially hazardous fish species.

"Substituted, mislabeled fish offered fraudulently in supermarkets and restaurants may be endangered species or can result in health problems -- toxic pufferfish sold as something else for example," said Schindel.

Meanwhile, the Department of Agriculture is helping to set up a global database of fruit flies, which are a major pest for farmers.

And the US Federal Aviation Authority is backing bird barcoding, hoping to cut the numbers of birds getting sucked up by jet engines.

"Knowing which birds are most often struck, and the timing, altitude and routes of their migrations, could avert some of the thousands of annual collisions between birds and aircraft," said Carla Dove of the Smithsonian Institution.

Researchers are also aiming to barcode several thousand species of mosquito, including insects responsible for up to 500 million human malarial infections and a million deaths a year.

"Key to disease management is vector control," said scientist Yvonne-Marie Linton of The Natural History Museum in London, and leader of the Mosquito Barcoding Initiative.

Scientists are also trying to focus on barcoding mushrooms and fungi, with between 90 to 99 percent of all fungi as yet completely undocumented.

And a barcode library is being built up in Moorea, French Polynesia, thanks to a French-US collaboration.

"The importance of this work to conservation is particularly critical to developing strategies to preserve highly different genetic entities or species," said conference chair Kwang-Tsao Shao, from Taiwan's Academia Sinica.

"Asia is a region of high diversity, but relatively poor documentation of that diversity. Barcoding is a perfect collaboration between molecular techniques and traditional taxonomy, and a practical cost-effective way to both study this under-explored region and protect its biodiversity."

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'Global extinction crisis' predicted by conservation group
Paris (AFP) Sept 12, 2007
Gorillas, China's baiji dolphin, Asian vultures and Pacific corals on Wednesday joined the list of species hurtling to oblivion as the World Conservation Union (IUCN) warned of a fast-track "global extinction crisis."

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