The barcode of life

We live in a world where vast amounts of information are available, numerous museums, universities, research centers, and even hobbyists have vast amounts of information about species. It is the information age.

However, accessing this information on many occasions is difficult and complex. Species have traditionally been classified based on morphological characteristics such as shape, size and color of certain parts of the body.

The use of dichotomous classification keys helps to classify species but the trained eye of an expert taxonomist on that species or group is very necessary. However, when the specimen is damaged or in an immature stage of development, classification can be nearly impossible.

The initiative: The barcode of life or DNA Barcoding

In response to these problems, the barcode of life initiative emerged . This initiative was born in 2003, with the proposal of Paul Hebert of the University of Guelph in Ontario that each species had a DNA barcode to identify it.

This barcode of life would use a very short DNA sequence from a standard part of the genome that, like a barcode in the supermarket, would serve to identify each of the species.

The genetic region used for the barcode for almost all animal groups is the 648p region of the gene that encodes cytochrome-c-oxidase-1 (CO1). This region is being very effective in identifying birds, butterflies, fish, flies and many other animal groups.

However, it is not effective for plants as it evolves very slowly and two genetic regions have been approved in the chloroplast: matK and rbcL.

What are Barcoding projects?

Barcode of Life (or DNA) projects have four main components:

  • The espécimens : The espécimens can be found in natural history museums, herbaria, zoos, aquariums, frozen tissue collections, seed banks, crop type and other repositories of biological material can be great treasures to find espécimens.
  • The analysis laboratory : there are laboratory protocols to follow to obtain the barcode DNA sequences of the specimens. The best equipped laboratories can produce barcode DNA sequences in a few hours. These have to be added to a database for analysis.
  • The databases: it is the most important aspect of this initiative. A public reference library of species identifiers should be built that can be used to identify the species to be classified. Currently there are two databases that fulfill this function:
    • The International Nucleotide Sequence Database Collaborative which is a collaboration agreement between the GENBANK of the United States, the European Laboratory of Molecular Biology and the DNA Data Bank of Japan. All of them have agreed to adhere to the standards of this initiative.
    • BOLD or Barcode of Life Database that was created and is maintained by the University of Guelph in Ontario. It offers researchers a way to collect, manage and analyze DNA barcode data.
  • The analysis of the data : the espécimens are identified by finding the closest matching record in the database.

The usefulness of this initiative

This way of identifying species can be very useful for cataloging unknown species and reviewing the classification of other doubtful ones. There are many species that have been discovered in museum collections, such as these fruit bats or the ruby dragon .

The usefulness of this initiative is not only to adequately classify species, but it can allow a better use of the available information. Adoption of this standard can allow a collected sample, new research, or new discovery to be quickly linked to information available around the world.

The data can be quickly related, for example, to parasites, diseases, other collections, or interesting data.

The possibilities that exist in this aspect are very interesting since it can allow managing, monitoring and venturing the migrations of species, invasions, research on biodiversity and genetic variations in populations.

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