The Plan to Give Every Ocean Species a Genetic Barcode
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The Plan to Give Every Ocean Species a Genetic Barcode

A wildly ambitious plan made even more difficult beneath the waves.
August 12, 2015, 1:38pm

An international team of scientists is on a mission to give every living species on earth a unique DNA "barcode" so that they can be easily identified. It's an intensely ambitious project, and indexing what lives deep beneath the waves is its most challenging—and costly—vector.

The initiative began in 2003 when University of Guelph scientist Paul Hebert proposed that small snippets of genetic information could be used to classify species of animals, fungi, and plants. To produce a barcode, scientists sequence a section of an animal's DNA and give it a unique identifier. The idea is that the chosen segment of DNA is the same for all animals in a species, so comparing barcodes can identify animals when morphology—looking at physical characteristics—isn't enough. Barcoding can distinguish between species that might look exactly the same, even to the trained eye.

Image: Biodiversity Institute of Ontario

In 2010, a project to build a database of barcodes called the international Barcode of Life (iBOL) kicked off with funding from the government of Canada and numerous international partners. Its stated goal was to give 500,000 species barcodes by 2015. iBOL is now closing in on its goal, but with a caveat: of the hundreds of thousands of species that have been given DNA barcodes, only an estimated 50,000 came from the water—about one in ten.

"It's because of how difficult it is to get marine samples," explained Dirk Steinke, campaign coordinator for the marine chapter of iBOL. A single specimen from the deepest parts of the ocean can end up costing tens of thousands of dollars when you factor in all the costs associated with an expedition and dive.

Collecting samples. Image: Biodiversity of Ontario

"You need to get on a ship and have to have all the equipment there," Steinke said. "And if you go to the really unknown parts of the ocean, where nobody, not even the most capable groups, has an idea of what lives there—I'm talking about the deep ocean—it's incredibly difficult to get a specimen from there."

Ideally, barcoding scientists prefer go on expeditions themselves in order to ensure that samples and specimens are handled correctly (an iBOL analysis ideally requires not just a tissue sample, but a reference animal as well). But since going on an expedition is really expensive, iBOL scientists often settle for nicely asking expedition teams with previously planned dives to bring back something they can use.

Image: Biodiversity Institute of Ontario

Failing that, institutions such as museums and zoos provide rare and hard to obtain specimens for barcoding scientists. The Royal Ontario Museum, for example, maintains a massive collection of frozen tissue samples, which is lent out to scientists. Museum scientists also go out in the field to collect animals and tissue samples from across the world.

"We've got collections that have now been barcoded that come all the way from the east coast of Africa to Hawaii," Mary Burridge, assistant curator of Ichthyology at the ROM, told me. "We have practically every small and large set of islands across the Indo-Pacific, and that would be impossible to get unless you had someone with funding. There's nobody at the University of Guelph who could do that."

Removing samples from a freezer. Image: Biodiversity Institute of Ontario

At the same time, since many scientists believe we're in the middle of a massive extinction event, and so there is a sense of urgency driving the iBOL project. Even by conservative estimates, animal life on our planet is going extinct at an unprecedented rate. The ocean is no exception, so scientists have to collect as many samples as they can, while they still can.

"The keyword is 'ocean acidification,'" Steinke said. "The primarily affected habitats are coral reefs—we know that. For years we've seen how some of them, and there's good examples in the Caribbean sea, literally get destroyed. I'd say it's relatively easy, compared to the deep sea stuff, to collect there, although you have to be careful to not disturb anything."


Coral reefs being decimated would mean that one of the greatest assets iBOL scientists have for indexing species, both known and unknown, would be lost forever, Steinke said.

Image: Biodiversity Institute of Ontario

The iBOL project intends to widen its scope beyond the 500,000 species it's already indexed, into the millions thought to be alive on Earth today, but it will need a fresh injection of funding, first. Unfortunately, funding for ocean science is a bit of contentious issue in the international scientific community. In the US, a lack of funding has resulted in a ten percent drop in project approvals from the National Science Foundation. Notably, the US's contributions to iBOL all come from private foundations, and not the government.

At the sixth international Barcode for Life Conference—being held starting on August 18th at the University of Guelph, where it all started—Hebert, barcoding's pioneer, will make a case to the 500 international attendees for a $2.5 billion expansion of the project.

A funding boost in the billions is an incredibly ambitious goal—audacious, even. But for a project that seeks to give a genetic barcode to every living thing, perhaps audacious is apt.

Hell or Salt Water is a series on Motherboard about exploring and preserving our oceans. Follow along here.