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Pop!Tech 2005: Bob Hanner on DNA Barcoding
Ethan Zuckerman, 20 Oct 05

DNA-Barcode.gifBob Hanner works in the world's oldest profession, he tells us. He's a taxonomist. (He quotes Genesis 2:19 to make his point, where Adam names every living creature.) Bob's quest is to name, classify and index as many species as possible - globally, roughly 1.7 million species have been named and categorized... but this is a small fraction of the 10 to 100m species biologists speculate actually exist.

Hanner's fascination is with the idea of DNA barcoding. Paul Hebert's work on mitochondrial DNA has taught us that animal species can be told apart via the COI subgene in cell's mitochondria. While this technique doesn't work on plants (they don't diverge quickly enough in evolutionary terms), these sorts of DNA "barcodes" have allowed biologists to determine that half a dozen different species of leeches around the world were actually one species, spread throughout the world via human trade routes. These barcodes have also allowed biologists to discover that one species of butterfly were actually ten separate species, with different larval development cycles and food preferences.

Hanner envisions a handheld barcoder that can take a tissue sample, sequence the mitochondrial DNA, and upload data to a Google-like DNA search engine. In his vision, it's a $10 purchase at Radio Shack, and that there's a penny tax on each DNA reading, which goes towards a global effort to produce a taxonomy of all species. One immediate application for this technology? Studying the world's dwindling fishing stocks, which are a critical source of protein for the developing world - are the larvae we see from food species of fish or other species? Are the fillets we see in the market from the species we think they're from.

If you're interested in DNA barcoding, you may want to read Jamais's earlier piece on the subject.

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Well they won't sell it at frickin' Radio Shack if they want anyone actually to buy the thing. Radio Shack is where you go to buy batteries or wacko cable adapters.

How about make it a $10 purchase at Amazon, or Wal-mart?

Posted by: Andrew on 20 Oct 05

Hey Ethan, you and Cameron are 12 miles from my house right now. Want to try to meet for coffee or a beer? Contact info can be found by following the link made by my name.

Posted by: David Foley on 20 Oct 05

This could be fantastic. If there's something in it for the end user, millions of people will be turned into field taxonomists. A known plant gives ID; a weird one means you contribute to science.

Upload your location at the same time, and you have new types of data: scientists could get plant coverage. With such data useful in climate research, a person could feel good everytime they ID a plant.

Reading through Jamais' previous post, I can see this opens up a whole pandora's box of problems with patents and the openness of the whole model.

Hopefully there's a wikipedia like model for this. Are these machines available now to non-researchers? What is their cost?

Posted by: Daniel Haran on 20 Oct 05



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