Spot the species difference

November 11, 2005

Relishing high levels of collaboration - in particular international collaboration - seems almost a national trait for Canadian scientists.

There is no better recent example of the "collaborative Canadian" than Paul Hebert and his deceptively simple idea about how to make species identification truly scientific, now transformed into a worldwide effort.

In 2000, the University of Guelph evolutionary biologist had a Eureka moment about the often-confusing world of plant and animal classification.

Little had changed in the more than 250 years since Linnaeus developed his scheme of kingdoms, classes and species based on the idea that if an organism looked or acted differently, it was a different species.

What Hebert realised was that molecular biology holds the possibility of a truly objective species classification. He reasoned that if beings are fundamentally distinct, then that difference should show up in their DNA.

His inspiration was that most mundane bit of modern technology - the bar code, with its mindless ability to differentiate one shelf item from another.

With this as a model, he started looking for that genetic tag. He soon seized on one mitochondria gene, the remnants of a primitive bacteria that regulates plant and animal cells' energy production.

The notion that changes in a single gene could differentiate between creatures was greeted with scepticism, but in 2003 Hebert was able to show a 2 or 3 per cent difference between 200 known species of moths. Another study surveyed 260 known North American birds and found four species that had been missed by looking at their appearance and behaviour.

Hebert's success has, in only two years, led to a global effort. The international Consortium for the Bar-coding of Life, established in 2004, now includes more than 80 organisations from 33 countries.

Hebert himself has been given C$30 million (£14.5 million) from private and public funders to build the world's first DNA "factory" in Guelph. The initial aim is to classify 100,000 species a year.

For Hebert, the result is not just satisfaction in seeing research come to fruition, but awe at the speed with which global collaborative work has taken off.

"We couldn't have believed two years ago that this would happen. I am shocked by how broadly it works," he says.

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