Earth is home to an estimated 10 to100 million species but 250 years of morphological study has formally described fewer than two million of them. Current approaches to the study of biological diversity are seriously hampered by the limited ability of humans to recognize and recall morphological variation.
Few taxonomists can reliably diagnose even 1,000 species and that means that we will need up to 100,000 taxonomists simply to sustain the ability to recognize Earth’s 10 to 100 million species, once they have all been described. It is this stark reality that is driving a new approach to species recognition called DNA barcoding.
In 2003, researchers at the University of Guelph in Canada published a paper proposing a new system of species identification and discovery using a very short genetic sequence from a standard part of the genome. Their method was similar to the way a supermarket scanner distinguishes products using the black stripes of the Universal Product Code. They called the new molecular identification system “DNA barcoding”.
Traditionally, taxonomists identify biological specimens using morphological features or “keys”. But if a specimen is damaged or in an immature stage of development – the larva of a wasp, for example – even an experienced taxonomist may be unable to make an identification. Barcoding would eliminate these difficulties. Non-specialists could obtain barcodes from tiny amounts of tissue and the barcode sequence was the same for all stages of development. Thus DNA barcoding could serve two purposes: a new tool helping taxonomists with hard-to-identify specimens and an innovative device for non-experts needing to make a quick identification.
The promise of accurate, rapid and inexpensive species identification captured the attention of taxonomists, geneticists and evolutionary biologists around the world. After two exploratory workshops in 2004 and an international barcoding conference in London the following year, delegates from 25 countries travelled to Guelph in June, 2007 to discuss a proposed “United Nations of barcoding” – a global collaboration of biodiversity scientists that would create a DNA barcode reference library for all multi-cellular life.
The response was positive and efforts began to establish a committee in each country to oversee the participation of its researchers and to lead the quest for funding. Rapid progress was made and in July 2009, work began on establishing the administrative structures and finalizing the research plans of the International Barcode of Life (iBOL) project. This ramp-up phase would set the stage for the formal activation of iBOL in October 2010.