Scientists catalog species with "barcode" gene

    An international team of scientists is undertaking an ambitious task: cataloging the DNA of hundreds of thousands of species.

    A research institute in Chester County has been selected to head up the freshwater collection for the International Barcode of Life.

    Listen: [audio:090708kgbarcode.mp3]

    Over the next five years, the goal of the International Barcode of Life program is to scan five million specimens. Scientists are screening just a small stretch of a gene that has a slightly different composition for each species — much like a barcode on groceries. The Stroud Water Research Center in Avondale will lead the collection of freshwater critters. Bern Sweeney is the center’s director.

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    Sweeney: I think our initial focus will be on macroinvertebrates and fish, mainly because macroinvertebrates and fish are widely used for evaluating water quality throughout streams, rivers, and lakes throughout the world.

    He says barcoding can help determine whether efforts to mitigate pollution and improve water quality are working.

    Sweeney: One way to measure the success of that mitigation and remediation is to look at the return of species. We are really handicapped right now because we cannot tell one species from another from the specimens that we collect from a river.

    Sweeney says barcoding could solve that problem for many animal species. A barcoding pilot study at Stroud found that some of the insects that had been considered one species were actually two or more.

    The Barcode program’s director, Paul Hebert, is a professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario. He expects that in five years, the project will have collected 500,000 species.

    Hebert: That will probably be 10 percent of all multicellular species on the planet and we’ll push on from there. But the 500,000 species will be those organisms that are of greatest importance to human I think in terms of conservation issues or practical issues such as crop pests or water quality monitoring.

    Scientists anticipate barcoding challenges when it comes to plants, corals and sponges.

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