Call It A DNA Digital Dewey Decimal System For All Life On Earth

Every species, from extinct to thriving, is set to get its own DNA bar code in an attempt to better track the ones that are endangered, as well as those being shipped across international borders as food or consumer products.

The International Barcode of Life Project (iBOL), touted as the world’s first reference library of DNA bar codes and the world’s largest biodiversity genomics project, is being built by scientists using fragments of DNA to create a database of all life forms.

“What we’re trying to do is to create this global library of DNA bar codes – snippets, little chunks of DNA – that permit us to identify species,” said Alex Smith, assistant professor of molecular ecology at the University of Guelph’s Biodiversity Institute of Ontario.

Researchers hope hand-held mobile devices will be able to one day read these digital strips of rainbow-coloured bar codes – much like supermarket scanners – to identify different species by testing tissue samples on site and comparing them with a digital database.

So far DNA bar coding has helped identify the type of birds that forced last year’s emergency landing of a flight on the Hudson River in New York. The researchers also discovered nearly one in four fish fillets are mislabelled in North America .

To get the bar codes, scientists use a short section of DNA extracted from a standardized region of tissue. Once the bar code is created, it’s filed in the iBOL library (which can be viewed at

Just as the bar code scanner at a grocery store can identify lettuce, milk or steak, the DNA bar code sequence can be used to identify different species so that anyone who isn’t a specialist – from an elementary school student to a border patrol inspector – can identify the species, once technology to read the library is available.

The library has more than 87,000 formally described species with barcodes filed and more than one million total bar-coded specimens. Scientists estimate iBOL will have bar codes for all 10 million species of multicellular life within the next 20 years.

“Most of life on the planet is not polar bears and Siberian tigers – most of life on the planet weighs less than a gram, is less than a centimetre long, and isn’t visual,” Smith said.

Aside from saving polar bears or tigers from extinction, the library is meant to help with more routine aspects of the global economy. That includes jobs such as ensuring the salmon or trout in markets and restaurants are accurately identified, or determining whether foods or other animal products crossing international borders are what they are claimed to be.

Smith said the bar codes will dramatically cut the time food shipments are held up at borders if technology to read the bar codes is available to determine whether a suspected pest on board is harmful.

Smith sees hand-held wireless devices and computer applications technology being developed to read the DNA bar code library out in the field.

Species at risk:A kagu, an endangered species fully protected in New Caledonia, is pictured inside an enclosure at the Preservation and Research Center in Yokohama, south of Tokyo in October.



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