In 2003, Canadian scientist Paul Hebert proposed “DNA Barcoding” as a novel way to identify species. Unlike sequencing the entire genome, barcoding only uses a very short genetic sequence from a standard part of the genome, similar to the way a supermarket scanner distinguishes products using the black stripes of the Universal Product Code (UPC). Two items may look very similar to the untrained eye, but their barcodes are distinct and can positively identify what they are.
Historically, biological specimens were visually identified by features like the shape, size and color of body parts, often by experienced professional taxonomists using complicated step-by-step “keys”. But sometimes even specialists are unable to make identifications, especially if the specimen is old, incomplete, or is something completely new to science. Barcoding solves these problems because with recent advances in technology, even non-specialists (students, citizen scientists, or parataxonomists) can obtain barcodes from tiny amounts of tissue (even from archived museum specimens).
SD-BOL is part of the International Barcode of Life (iBOL) – the largest biodiversity genomics initiative ever undertaken. Hundreds of biodiversity scientists, genomics specialists, technologists and citizen scientists from 25 nations are working together to construct a DNA barcode reference library that will be the foundation for a DNA-based identification system for all multi-cellular life. Locally, SD-BOL has begun working with businesses, schools, libraries, and nonprofits to spool-up citizen science projects that will help scientifically document the rich biodiversity of our region. The knowledge gained can help us make informed decisions about conserving the diversity of life for future generations.