The researcher who transformed biodiversity science with a short snippet of DNA

Centre for Biodiversity Genomics, University of Guelph

According to Google Scholar, Prof. Paul Hebert’s research papers have surpassed 100K citations, signalling the popularization of DNA barcoding – a method Hebert has been developing since he first proposed it as a quick and efficient method for discerning species in 2004.

“Paul’s passion for life on this planet and his vision for the potential of biodiversity genomics have made him the leader in his field,” said Prof. Mazyar Fallah, Dean of the College of Biological Science at the University of Guelph, where Hebert serves as director of the Centre for Biodiversity Genomics (CBG).

Hebert founded the CBG to further develop DNA technologies for biodiversity discovery and analysis. The Centre features state-of-the-art specimen imaging, DNA sequencing and informatics platforms. It also hosts a natural history collection with more than 8 million specimens, taxonomy and collections teams, and a DNA archive. The Centre also coordinates and leads major biodiversity research collaborations in Canada and internationally, involving experts from disciplines ranging from AI to Natural Capital Accounting. Each year, the CBG welcomes dozens of international researchers to work on biodiversity projects and to learn the techniques and technologies for biodiversity assessment and monitoring.

“The CBG is the physical manifestation of his vision and remains a global leader in biomonitoring technologies. Through his work and his Centre, he has trained hundreds of people, but he has inspired so many more.”

The 100K scientific paper citations – a remarkable achievement for any scientist – coincides with the 20th anniversary of Hebert’s first DNA barcoding research paper, wherein it was proposed that reading a short snippet of DNA could generate what Hebert called a “DNA barcode” to identify species. Once the DNA barcode is generated, it is added to a data platform called BOLD. The data is open to the public and accessed by users across the globe.

In recent years, two major pan-European research initiatives, BIOSCAN-Europe, and Biodiversity Genomics Europe, launched, drawing heavily on CBG’s barcoding expertise.

“This remarkable milestone is a testament to Paul’s work and the wider activity, productivity, and global impact of the DNA barcoding community,” said Prof. Peter Hollingsworth, Director of Science and Deputy Keeper at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and one of the lead researchers involved in the coordination of the new European collaborations.

In his public presentations, Hebert often speaks about the role barcoding can play in combatting the global biodiversity crisis. He has said that he aims to reduce costs, automate, and accelerate biodiversity analysis so anyone anywhere can access biodiversity data in real time. His current global research program, BIOSCAN, aims to document all multicellular life by mid-century so humanity can launch a global biosurveillance program.

“DNA barcoding and its capacity to promptly and precisely identify species has transformed how we approach species discovery, ecological studies, and conservation management,” said Prof. Michelle Vanderbank, Director of the African Centre for DNA Barcoding at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. Vanderbank is a BIOSCAN collaborator and has completed the first-ever insect diversity surveys in Kruger National Park and South Africa’s national botanical gardens.

“This technology has allowed me, as an African, to contribute to crucial conservation programmes not only in South Africa but globally as well. I believe these technologies will continue to play a crucial role in expanding our understanding of the natural world and informing our efforts to preserve and safeguard biodiversity for future generations to come,” said van der Bank, who recently completed a first-ever survey of insect diversity in South Africa’s National Botanical Gardens.

Hollingsworth and Vanderbank are part of iBOL, the not-for-profit research organization founded by Hebert in 2010. Today, iBOL has representatives from more than 40 countries, with DNA-based research projects spanning ecoregions across the planet and involving communities, industry, and citizen scientists.

Hollingsworth says that when he noticed Hebert’s Google Scholar citations cracking the 100K mark, it was evidence of the potential for DNA barcoding to aid in combatting the biodiversity crisis.

“It is a sign of how dynamic the field is and a great indicator of how our community of researchers has harnessed collective efforts focusing on a common methodology for understanding and tracking biodiversity,” said Hollingsworth.

Prof. Paul Hebert
Researchers survey insect diversity in a South Africa’s national botanical gardens.
Researcher using high-powered microscope to photograph specimens.
A high-powered Keyence microscope is automated to image millions of specimens each year.

Learn more about iBOL

The International Barcode of Life Consortium is a research alliance undertaking the largest global biodiversity science initiative: create a digital identification system for life that is accessible to everyone

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