The Friday Fillip: Linnaeus 3.0

So what’s this?

It’s not the barcode for a box of Froot Loops. Neither is it the barcode for the Rainbow Six video game. In fact it’s the barcode of an Arctic warbler (a.k.a. Phylloscopus borealis).

And what makes this LBJ (“little brown job”) so special is its inclusion, along with more than a hundred thousand other species, in the International Barcode of Life data system, a Canadian project out of the University of Guelph.

The planet is host to a vast number of animal species, many of which we’re just discovering now. And figuring out which beast belongs to which species — indeed, what counts as a species — is no easy task. But we keep trying: human beings have an urge to categorize, to make taxonomies that in some meaningful way mirror reality; and ever since Adam was given the task of naming the creatures, we’ve been labelling and sorting the life we see around us.

Linnaeus is given credit as the first real taxonomist of life. His system, published in 1735, gave us three kingdoms, divided into phyla, and then into classes, orders, families, genera, and species… All this was before Darwin, of course. And subsequently an organizing system, cladistics, developed that based its groupings not on superficial or structural similarities but on what was known about its evolutionary ancestry.

Now, with the discovery of DNA, we’re able to identify and distinguish organisms with precision. Couple that with the innovations developed by the IBOL group, and you’ve got what I’ve called Linnaeus 3.0 — an advanced system of life data collection and management. The heart of the innovation, as I understand it, lies in the choice of a particular and small region of DNA shared by many animals; to say it in technical terms: it’s “a 648 base-pair region in the mitochondrial cytochrome c oxidase 1 gene (‘CO1’).” The point of this is cost: where a full DNA analysis is time-consuming and expensive, this patch of proteins can be sequenced fairly quickly and cheaply, but yet give all the specificity needed for identification.

At the moment, iBOL is the base for a number of barcoding campaigns aimed variously at lepidoptera (butterflies, moths), formicidae (ants), fish, birds, mammalia, and polar wildlife.

The database of samples keeps growing towards an expected 5,000,000 in four years’ time. And this genetic data is linked to data descriptive and distributional data. If, as is hoped, technology provides ever easier means of sampling the relevant DNA, the barcode will become the entry code to a wealth of knowledge about the species we share the planet with.

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