Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

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Princeton, MAINE USA

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Scan That Sunflower

Barcodes may be the breakthrough method for cataloguing the Earth’s 10 million plants and animals.


Yellow Flowers Barcoded

Paitning by Dion Laurent

Despite centuries of work by plant taxonomists, only a fifth of the world’s species has been accurately catalogued.  Meanwhile, pollution, deforestation, and zealous land development are killing off tree and flower species (animals, too) with each passing day. There’s a sense of urgency about stepping up the process of identification, but how?

Molecular biologist Kenneth Cameron and others are hoping to perfect a barcoding system that, with the swipe of a scanner, could distinguish closely related species and give every plant on earth an instant ID. In yesterday’s Wall St. Journal, Sharon Begley profiled Cameron and his work.  “DNA bar coding depends on analyzing part of just one gene, the same gene in all cases, for every species. If and when a DNA bar code database of all terrestrial plant and animal species is established, a field biologist could take a tiny piece of tissue, like a scale or hair or leaf, from the unknown specimen, and feed it into a hand-held device for analysis.” The process works on tissues up to 20 years old.

The New York Times ran a piece in December 2004 that focused on successful barcoding of animals, with “the first 648 DNA units of a gene called CO1 (for cytochrome c oxidase 1).” The method has been tougher to apply among plants since plant species have more similar DNA and hybridize so much more easily. Cameron and others have been closing in on several promising strands of plant DNA that might offer a unique “thumbprint” but thus far none can entirely single out every species. Some scientists even doubt whether such a strand of DNA exists in the plant world.

For you hard scientists, here’s a scholarly paper on the subject. Have at it and let us know what you think.

Those of us who still look for price tags on the peanut butter jar may be asking, Why bother? At the current rate of traditional taxonomic research,  Dr. Quentin Wheeler of Cornell University, says, “We will need 1,196 years to complete the job,” of identifying all bugs, critters, trees, and flowers:  too late for the many thousands of species already scudding toward extinction. Begley writes that successful barcoding also could “make life easier for customs inspectors trying to catch trade in endangered species, not to mention for mushroom hunters unsure whether a specimen is a luscious morel or a toxic amanita. Slip a pinch into your bar coder and live to forage another day.”

Thanks and love to image for alerting us to this story.


Posted by Julie on 07/29 at 10:22 AM