Genetic "barcodes" may cut illegal trade
OSLO (Reuters) - New genetic tests could help crack down on illegal food or timber trade, fight malaria or even give clues to how to stop bird strikes with planes, scientists said on Friday.
Experts have identified DNA "barcodes" -- named after the black and white lines that identify products in a supermarket -- of more than 31,000 species of animals and plants against 12,700 species in 2005 in a fast-growing branch of science.
"We're building up a reference library of species," said David Schindel of the U.S. Smithsonian Institution who is executive secretary of the Consortium for the Barcode of Life. About 350 barcode experts will meet from September 18-20 in Taipei.
A snippet of genetic material, such as a sliver of fish or sawdust from a plank of wood, can help identity a species by a DNA "barcode" unique to each species in a laboratory process taking a few hours and costing about $2.
Barcoding experts are working with regulators such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to seek applications for the database such as curbing illegal imports, fighting mosquitoes or helping understand bird migration routes.
Barcoding could help, for instance, identify a tiny worm on a shipment of bananas and so settle a dispute about whether it was a harmless pest just picked up at the port of entry or a more dangerous imported species.
The FDA warned in May that a shipment labeled monkfish from China might contain a type of puffer fish that can contain a deadly toxin if badly prepared. "Barcoding could help identify the fish quickly," Schindel said.
The same could apply to checking whether a wooden table, for instance, was from an endangered hardwood species.
"Once a tree has been cut up into boards it's very hard to identify .... without the branches, roots and bark it's very hard to identify," Schindel told Reuters. "Barcoding can help."
"This has not gone to a court of law yet but in the next year or two I think we will see more and more cases where barcoding has provided the smoking pistol," he said.
Proper identification of mosquitoes could help slow the spread of malaria, which kills a million people a year, by enabling scientists to pick the right insecticides.
"Key to disease management is vector control," said Yvonne-Marie Linton of the Natural History Museum, London. She said in a statement that misidentification of species often hampered controls.
And proper identification of dead birds after collisions with aircraft could help avoid future strikes.
"Knowing which birds are most often struck and the timing, altitude and routes of their migrations, could avert some of the thousands of annual collisions," said Carla Dove of the Smithsonian.
The scientists hope to identify 500,000 species in coming years.
So far the databases are far from complete -- with about 20 percent of the world's 10,000 species of birds and 10 percent of the estimated 35,000 marine and freshwater fishes. Extracting DNA barcodes from plants is proving harder than for animals.