GUELPH, Ont. — Staff at a little-known research centre tucked into the edge of the University of Guelph are recording the genetic identity of hundreds of thousands of species worldwide.
The project — the International Barcode of Life — is revolutionary, unique and audacious, promising to record the DNA code of all flora and fauna in Canada within several years and most of the world’s species eventually.
Already, the Barcode of Life digital library records the DNA bar code for more than 350,000 species around the globe with a goal of 500,000 by 2015. It is the species DNA reference site for scientists around the world and has grandiose plans for expansion if funding can be secured.
The work being done at the Centre for Biodiversity Genomics (CBG) also has enormous implications for the agriculture and food industry.
DNA tests can determine the content of food on grocery store shelves, which is often not what is advertised.
DNA bar codes can indicate the early presence of invasive species, whether ash beetles or zebra mussels, that are causing billions of dollars in damages. Early identification can lead to early protection.
And DNA bar coding helps researchers get a picture of the flora and fauna that now exist, providing a record of the existing species as they begin to disappear or are displaced by projects such as the Alberta oil sands.
Tracking the DNA bar code for weeds is helping farmers determine precisely what weeds they have to deal with and what treatment is most effective. Analysis of soil seed samples can alert farmers about the weeds they can expect to deal with next growing season.
The impact is still mainly in Ontario, but the centre has plans to make the DNA library Canada-wide. The dream is that within years, farmers will be able to use a handheld device to code the DNA of weeds or unusual plants or animals on their farms and send it to Guelph or a nearby co-operating university for analysis.
“It is pie-in-the-sky right now, kind of like sci-fi, but in 10 years, it could be a device sitting in a tractor,” CBG botanical director Steven Newmaster said.
For Barcode of Life project scientific director Paul Hebert, “pie-in-the-sky” predictions are nothing new.
He proposed a decade ago in a scientific paper that almost did not get published and was rejected several times that all species on the planet could be identified and differentiated by coding just a small segment of their massive DNA storehouse.
Hebert said he faced a storm of criticism at the time. DNA bar coding was considered impractical.
“At the time, I was glad I was a full tenure professor,” he said. “It was not a popular theory, not considered practical.”
Then the philanthropist Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation in California agreed to donate $3 million to let him prove his theory or fail.
“The money was given on the expectation we would fail.”
Instead, Hebert proved his point and 10 years later, runs an institute with 100 employees, a worldwide reputation and 26 countries co-operating to send specimen samples to the largest DNA species databank in the world. It is recognized as the global leader in DNA bar code technology.
“It really has revolutionized biology and in the past, we really did not do a good job of reading life,” he said.
“You can have a little idea in a little place like Guelph, and it can burn its way across the planet.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture regularly calls on the centre for food content testing. Scientists around the world collaborate.
Tens of millions of dollars have been rounded up to build the centre and to fund the work.
But now, funding issues loom.
The centre has public funding commitments until 2015, but after a $25 million, five-year funding promise, Genome Canada said it received less funding from Ottawa and cut its commitment to $10 million until 2015, or $2 million a year.
“Our funding has more or less imploded,” said Robert Hanner of the CBG. “It is a real issue.”