Animal Barcoding Provides Whole New World of Information
Picture yourself working for an inventory company. You are at a store scanning barcodes, one by one, when suddenly you come to an item that will not register on your machine. It’s not because the barcode is invalid, it’s because you’ve stumbled upon a new kind of barcode used to study animals.
Technology has been rapidly expanding over the years, and now there’s a whole new way to discover and track animal information. Through genetic testing, scientists can track changing patterns in animal diets due to global warming by use of a barcode inspired system. A small sample of animal tissue or plant matter can reveal a unique DNA genetic code in a laboratory—all for the price of a few dollars.
When talking of the system used for identifying species by their genes, executive secretary of CBOL (the Consortium for the Barcode of Life) David Schindel says “there’s been an extraordinary growth in the use of the technology”. Currently the system’s database contains over 700,000 records that cover 65,000 species. Scientists are making use of these barcoding methods to better understand the food web by studying the DNA of food found in predators’ stomachs.
Why on earth would they want to do that? Well, according to chair of the CBOL, Scott Miller, the codes help in the study of relations “between hunter and prey in the wild and how diets may be changing due to climate change. Tiny soil organisms eat each other, roots, and all sorts of plant and animal debris. Knowing what eats what is important to many studies, including investigations into how much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are being released from soils into the atmosphere.”
One example of the latest research shows that 8 bat species feed on more than 300 types of insect, making it one of the largest food webs known. By comparing their known diet now to their diet in the future, it can show how climate change has been affecting their habits. There is also the chance that it might be able to identify species buried in permafrost for thousands of years.
However, the barcode system is not simply for following animal food habits; it’s also a crime fighting device! Okay, maybe not like Batman or Spiderman, but it can help a great deal in smuggling cases. For example, Kenyan and Ugandan courts tend to give the benefit of the doubt to smugglers because the bushmeat is usually difficult to identify. By testing the DNA code with this system, scientists can tell if the meat came from an endangered species.
While the use of barcoding with animals is not an entirely new thing (such as microchip implants for domestic animals), it is a new and much more convenient way to conduct genetic testing. A whole new series of information can be found by applying these techniques, which may very well be the difference between the saving or the extinction of many species.
By Heidi Marshall