Handheld DNA Scanners to ID Species Instantly?

January 26, 2005

Imagine a muggy summer night—steak sizzling on the barbeque, cold drink in hand, and hundreds of insects mobbing the porch light. Suddenly a mosquito dive-bombs your bare arm. You flatten it with a smack but not before it sucks a drop of your blood. Did you just contract the West Nile virus?

If Paul Hebert gets his way, in about ten years all you'll need to do is feed a fragment of the flattened bug into your handheld scanner for analysis. Moments later, the little machine will identify the species with a photo and description, allowing you to determine if you are at risk.

Hebert, a zoologist at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, is the father of an idea known as DNA bar coding. The notion holds that just about every plant and animal species on the planet can be identified by quickly analyzing a short stretch of DNA—in much the same way that scanner reads bar codes in a store.

"The technology will be so simple to use that anyone can identify any organism they encounter," he said.

A tiny piece of tissue—a scale, a hair, a leaf—is all that is required for identification. Once it's fed into the machine, any organism can be known by such fragments.

Hebert imagines many possible applications for such a device:

• Aviation agencies could identify birds that impact aircraft;

• biologists could pinpoint a frog's last meal;

• health inspectors could look for undesirable plant and animal material in processed foods; and

• anyone could wander into the backyard and learn about its flora and fauna.

DNA "bar codes" also promise to expedite the discovery of new species, according to David Schindel, executive secretary of the Consortium for the Barcode of Life. The initiative is funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation of New York to promote the use of DNA bar codes in species identification.

Launched in May 2004, the consortium is based at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

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