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magazine / ma07

March/April 2007 issue


FEATURE

Barcoding life
Identifying each of the 15 million or so species on the planet may seem an impossible task. Can a genetic shortcut developed by a Canadian scientist do the job in mere decades?
Excerpt of story by Siobhan Roberts

Life is short in Churchill, Man., where ice lingers on Hudson Bay until July and by September, it's snowing again. Even with these limitations, the tundra teems with activity and beckons biodiversity hunter Paul Hebert like a pet store to a wide-eyed child. Over three weeks last summer, he conducted a "biodiversity blitz" in Churchill — a census of all the organisms he could get his hands on.


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Hebert, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Guelph, along with about 30 staff and students grabbed samples from the flotsam parts they found lying about: feathers from the ptarmigan and hawk-eyed snowy owl, tufts of hair from the woodland caribou, skin swabs from the beluga whale, along with specimens of caplin, fairy shrimp and tiny jet-black water fleas.

"Our prize catch occurred just two days ago," Hebert reported in an e-mail from the field. "We found a specimen of the black witch moth on a rock bluff right beside Hudson Bay. This is a migratory species that breeds in Mexico. It now stands as the most northern record ever for this species; it beats a 1957 record from Juneau, Alaska!"

Back in the lab, the team is reading a snippet of DNA from the tens of thousands of invertebrate specimens and the hundred or so vertebrate samples it collected. "We are not out slaughtering organisms," explains Hebert. The Churchill expedition deployed what some consider a revolutionary new taxonomical tool: a standardized method for identifying species using a short DNA sequence from a common locality on the genome. Hebert debuted this technique in a 2003 article in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, where he proclaimed that "these sequences can be viewed as genetic ‘barcodes' that are embedded in every cell."

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