Provincial grant supports acclaimed global biodiversity project

A load of lumber rumbles up to the Canadian border and an official with a hand-held scanner decides it cannot enter the country because it is carrying the eggs and larvae of an invasive species.
That is a common example of a potential application of new DNA barcoding, according to University of Guelph research scientist Dr. Mehrdad Hajibabaei, who, working with integrative biology professor Paul Hebert, are leading the world in DNA barcoding applications after a breakthrough discovery in 2003 at the university.
Herbert is Director of the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario at the University of Guelph and the founder of DNA barcoding.
“The potential applications for this technology are broad, touching every aspect of our lives,” said Hebert.
The provincial government announced last week a $5-million grant that will help advance the research initiative, which is called the Intern-ational Barcode of Life Project.
The money will enable researchers at the university to work with over 100 researchers from 25 countries to create the world’s largest reference library of DNA barcodes – consisting of 500,000 species.
Immediately after the announcement, Hebert and Minister of Research and Innovation John Wilkinson led a team to Australia to promote the work.
“There will be economic benefits linked to the prevention of crop devastation because of better surveillance of pests,” said Hebert.
“Barcoding will also protect human health by advancing our capacity to identify disease organisms and their transmission pathways. As well, barcoding will help protect biodiversity at a time when it is threatened by climate change.”
Alastair Summerlee, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Guelph, said the university “has a world-wide reputation for its breakthroughs in DNA barcoding.
“Today’s announcement will send a strong signal to researchers at major institutions around the world that Ontario is home to incredible research infrastructure and a government that supports its scientists and their tremendously valuable work.”
Currently, scientists rely on bulky instruments to conduct time-consuming DNA sampling. The researchers in Guelph are developing a groundbreaking technology that will lead to faster DNA identification by simply scanning a specimen with a hand-held device.
The goal is to preserve and protect global biodiversity, and it is an international research initiative being led from Guelph by scientists who are using a unique barcode method to catalogue DNA records of the world’s living plant and animal species.
Genes have unique properties, and, like fingerprints, there are sections of them that are unique to a species, so they can be identified and scanned like the barcodes used on products in a grocery store.
The provincial grant is an important start for building global barcoding research. In 2004, the Guelph researchers received nearly $5-million from Genome Canada through Ontario Genomics Institute, and a similar amount from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council to help support the barcode network in Canada and to advance the research on DNA barcoding. Well over $25-million in support has now been received from donors, national and international in the last five years.
The Gordon (of Intel) and Betty Moore Foundation, of San Francisco, supplied $2.5-million to the project in early 2004, Hajibabaei said. That couple has spent millions through their foundation on eco-projects, and the barcoding work developed in Guelph. The foundation recently gave a $5-million grant to Berkely in California for DNA research on an island near Tahiti, which could become a model ecosystem using the DNA technology. The project is to last for three years. That project stemmed from research in Guelph.
Hajibabaei said in an interview on Feb. 17 that creating a library of DNA barcodes for half a million species is "important socio-economic work to mankind."
He said he particularly likes the idea that the work is considered ethical research, and noted that, after the DNA barcode library has been developed, the remaining DNA samples are preserved, but, he added,” bringing them back is a different ball game. We are saving the DNA for future research."
He noted high school teachers have indicated an interest in teaching DNA barcoding to their classes. "You can do it in your back yard," he said, adding that the work actually started with Hebert studying moths in his own back yard.
Hajibabaei said the collection of  DNA samples will be used for research, for example graduate students can study various specific DNA samples if they wish. He said the DNA will be kept in "ultra cold freezers."
Hajibabaei said, "We can learn a lot studying that DNA. This is really and truly interesting work."
He added that the Canadian Centre for DNA Barcoding at University of Guelph is now connected to 186 researchers around the world, , "and now, following Canada, other countries are creating national barcode networks." He noted, too, that the grants are enabling the local university to provide funding for 50 other researchers across Canada, through the Canadian Barcode of Life Network.
Wilkinson said in an interview on Feb. 15, just prior to he and Hebert leading a team to Australia to showcase the barcoding work, that "They’ve made a revolutionary groundbreaking discovery."
Wilkinson said, "If we take just one slice of gene … We can turn that into a barcode."
He said that 25 to 50% of the life on the planet could be extinct by the end of the next century, and scientists will not be able to prevent that until they know exactly what is living on earth. This discovery gives them that ability.
Wilkinson added that the provincial government is pleased to be involved and offer support. "As the home team, we’re proud to kick start the effort over six continents."
Hajibabaei is the Associate Director of the Canadian Centre for DNA Barcoding at Biodiversity Institute of Ontario. The Centre is home to 35 researchers working on various aspects of DNA barcoding research. He said when Hebert and he began their work in 2003, there was some skepticism about the practical applications and the scope of their work, but that has now been mostly vanished.
"We are creating this massive library of DNA barcodes to aid identifying and classifying species for science and society." he said of about 500,000 species being targeted in the International Barcode of Life Project.
He said that modern classification of species was started over 200 years ago with Carl Linnaeus, of Sweden, the famous natural scientist.  He is considered the father of the taxonomy, the science of classification of flora and fauna.
Hajibabaei said that the border crossing scan is the classic example of an application of DNA barcoding, but it has many other practical applications, including such things as a rapid monitoring of fish species. He said a lesser fish filet is sold commercially "some 50% of the time" as something better. Now, DNA barcoding can detect the differences and the deceptions.
In addition to creating an unprecedented body of scientific knowledge to help preserve and protect the world’s biodiversity, there are many additional commercial applications for this technology such as helping to reduce the threat of global epidemics. By simply scanning DNA scientists will be able to quickly identify if a bird is carrying an infectious disease such as avian flu.
Ontario’s spending in the project comes from the provincial government’s fall economic statement – a $3- billion plan to enhance Ontario’s global competitiveness and create the next generation of economic growth.
"By supporting world-class research, we are attracting the best and brightest research talent to our province and ensuring that cutting-edge discoveries are made right here in Ontario," said Wilkinson. "This world-renowned research project is enhancing Ontario’s global reputation as a beacon for research and innovation, while at the same time helping to lay a foundation for future jobs and economic prosperity."
Wellington-Halton Hills MPP Ted Arnott was pleased with the grant, too,
"It would appear to be very good news for the University of Guelph, and it’s exciting that this kind of research is taking place in our area," Arnott said.
"Because it offers health, science and economic benefits for Guelph – and all of Ontario – the opportunities for commercialization and future job growth in this area are very exciting," said Guelph MPP Liz Sandals.