The Science of DNA Barcoding

Using DNA to classify and identify living things

DNA barcoding is a revolutionary method for identifying species based on a short segment of their genome. It works similar to how a supermarket scanner distinguishes products using the black stripes of the Universal Product Code (UPC). Unlike the supermarket scanner, DNA is read using sophisticated laboratory instruments and compounds. DNA barcoding was first proposed by a Canadian researcher, Dr. Paul Hebert, in 2003 and since that point has had an incredible impact on our ability to identify species.

Traditionally, taxonomists (taxonomy: the branch of science that deals with classifying organisms) rely heavily on morphological classification to identify specimens. This means that key features such as the shape, size, and color of body parts were used to distinguish one species from another. A trained technician could use morphological keys to compare an organism against reference images or illustrations, but in most cases, an experienced professional scientist or expert is needed.

Morphological keys are difficult to use when the specimen is damaged (old, broken, partial or otherwise not in pristine condition), is in an immature stage of development (egg, larval, juvenile, pupae, etc.). For these particular organisms, a species identification becomes unlikely. Or worse, an incorrect identification can be provided.

DNA barcoding can solve these issues because even non-scientists can obtain identifications from tiny amounts of tissue and LifeScanner is the first service to provide such a solution to the public.

Want to contribute to a growing global scientific initiative? You can help catalogue what’s around you by sending biological samples in for DNA barcoding with LifeScanner.

The data you collect, along with the resulting DNA barcode are provided directly to the research teams of the International Barcode of Life project. Your submissions can help scientists discover new species, protect species-at-risk, and gain new understandings of the relationships between species in our environment.