Despite some detractors - I've heard one person mutter "there's more interesting things to do with that data than just species identification" - barcoding initiatives are now well under way around the world. A new review in PLoS Biology looks at the state of barcoding today (and gives links to the major consortia carrying out barcoding projects), and some issues that surround it, including the politically sensitive problem of 'genetic resources'.
Many countries, especially developing countries with rich biodiversity, have laws protecting biological resources, including genetic information, reasoning that bioprospectors might profit from them without paying their dues to the country from which the resources are taken. This review argues that genetic barcodes must be recognized as 'non commercial' research, not least because it is a valuable tool for conservation.
Barcoding also has potential to address one problem that faces biology today: the lack of taxonomists to classify organisms. Biology programs in universities no longer produce as many students with taxonomic expertise, and the ones already out there are either retiring or dying off. As a result, there are groups of organisms for which only a handful of people might be able to identify new species or sort out existing ones. This problem is widely acknowledged, and there are some initiatives, such as the PEET program of the US National Science Foundation, for addressing it. However, the ubiquity of molecular techniques in biology labs today (most biologists now know their way around a micropipette even if they can't tell a calyx from a corolla) makes barcoding potentially an easier way to get a quick ID or to pin down an ambiguous specimen.
That all depends, of course, on the quality of barcoding databases. They're only as good as the specimens and data put into them. This means that whoever is matching scientific names to molecular sequences had better know what he or she is doing, because misidentifications can propagate themselves indefinitely if no one has the expertise to recognize the mistake. Misidentifications are definitely a problem on GenBank and other public sequence databases.
Which brings me around to the taxonomic tangle: a Yale paleontologist has found that a dinosaur specimen in the American Museum of Natural History is actually a genus new to science, but had lain undetected (despite being on public display) for decades because the partial specimen had been restored to look like an existing genus that it resembles.
Mr. Longrich has made a career out of digging through museum collections and tying up loose ends left by previous generations of paleontologists, avoiding the more glamorous but expensive work of digging up new fossils out in the field. Two of his previous discoveries were made in this way, and he said he has two more in the works.
“I’m just kind of doing mop-up work,” Mr. Longrich said.
As the molecular revolution in biology starts to move beyond well-characterized model species, we need a good mop-up crew now more than ever.