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  • 12.09.13

Instantly Identify Any Species With Your Cell Phone, Using The Barcode Of Life

As a group of scientists completes a database of every living creature’s DNA, everyone–from conservationists to border agents and homeowners battling insects–will be able to have their own easy mobile biology lab.

Instantly Identify Any Species With Your Cell Phone, Using The Barcode Of Life
Image: Honduran White Bat via Wikipedia]

There are 1.8 million species in danger of extinction. You probably wouldn’t be able to recognize most of them if they crawled, flew, or swam by you. But what if you could read the “barcode” of any creature’s DNA? Then it might be a whole lot easier for border agents to halt smuggling operations–and for lay people to do their part, too.

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In the not-so-distant-future, a cell phone attachment may let you instantaneously sequence a creature’s DNA. This isn’t useful just for stopping smugglers. The technology could help you figure out the answers to more mundane questions, like what kind of bugs are invading your home.

The International Barcode of Life consortium (IBOL), a group of institutions spanning 25 countries, is on a quest to create a 500,000-species DNA barcode database by 2015 (barcodes are standardized snippets of DNA that can identify a species). Eventually, the consortium wants to barcode every species on the planet.

The data management and analytics company SAP is working with the consortium on building a platform to collect, analyze, and store the DNA barcoding data. “We met these guys [from the consortium], and they said, ‘Look, we’re collecting all this data, but we don’t know where to store it,'” explains David Jonker, SAP’s Director of Big Data Marketing. “We spent quite a bit of time with them in design thinking workshops, eventually designing a solution to crowdsource a selection of DNA samples.”


IBOL is quickly cataloging DNA samples. Today, the group has several hundred thousand, but there are between 10 and 100 million species roaming the planet, and with one-third of all species projected to be extinct by 2100, the cataloguing project needs to move faster.

So the group built a DNA barcoding mobile app, set to go live in 2014. Anyone will be able to download the app, which lets users request vials for plant and insect samples. Send the vials back to IBOL, follow the DNA testing lifecycle through the app, and eventually, get a species ID and detailed data about what you found.

The big challenge will be figuring out a distribution system for all those vials. But if it works, the app can provide valuable data to users and grow IBOL’s DNA database.

The app could help scientists do a more advanced analysis, such as analyze the relationships between different species and their habitats. IBOL’s app, which is currently being beta tested, is just the first step. Within a decade, Yonker envisions the development of a cellphone attachment that can sequence DNA data out in the field and offer real-time results. Airports could run analyses to see if they’re transporting viruses. Farmers could easily scan the composition of their soil. And maybe most importantly, IBOL can grow its database while there’s still time to save at least some of Earth’s disappearing species.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.

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