From creatures that live in mineral deposits to the poles, DNA barcoding matures and spreads

Professor Andy Lowe reports that the Fourth International Barcode of Life (IBOL) Conference, held at the University of Adelaide between 28 November and 3 December 2011, was a huge success

DNA barcoding is a rapidly growing field that aims to develop a genetic identity tool for biodiversity, and this, the fourth meeting of the international group was the largest yet held — Adelaide hosted over 460 delegates from more than 61 countries and 50 Australian institutions, making it almost twice the size of the 2009 conference in Mexico City. Since the Mexico City conference, it feels as though DNA barcoding has matured from an unruly teenager into a young, ambitious professional.

The conference showcased 294 talks and 168 posters, covering the spectrum of knowledge and synthesis on the subject.

One new frontier opened by DNA barcoding is to inform the mining industry about sustainable resource management. The incredible story of the stygofauna, animals that live in aquifers and mineral deposits under Australian deserts, was perhaps one of the most amazing evolutionary stories. So little is understood about these organisms that we do not even know from where they extract their energy, yet DNA barcoding is providing the tools to identify, and therefore help conserve, these unique forms of life. To date, barcoding techniques have been used to identify thousands of previously unknown subterranean species, and each expedition has uncovered dozens of new species found nowhere else on Earth. Armed with this information, scientists have helped mining companies change their water-usage strategies so as to preserve these life-forms, providing a shining example of good environmental governance by the industrial sector.

DNA barcoding is also being increasingly used to support policy. For example, recent changes to Australian timber importation regulations require importers to demonstrate that their product comes from a sustainable source. This would not be feasible without a cheap and rapid method of identifying the origin of timber samples. Work showcased at the conference on the DNA barcoding of tropical timber trees is providing the tools to test the source of imported timber, aiding in enforcement, compliance and consumer empowerment.

Australia is a megadiverse country, one of 17 in the world, and the long geological isolation of the continent has led to a high level of species endemism (that is, unique to the continent) — up to 80% in some groups of related species. We are also fortunate that many of the pests and diseases that affect crops internationally have not yet reached our shores. To ensure protection of our unique ecosystems and thriving agriculture industry, the Australian Government and the scientific community are integrating DNA barcoding into management processes such as the Northern Territory emergency response to invasive species that could threaten our native ecosystems and crops.

The talks and posters demonstrated the diversity of work in this field, which has resulted in the building of the barcode-of-life library: more than 100,000 barcode sequences are now available in international databases from across the tree of life, from higher animals through plants and fungi to microbes.

We heard from speakers who had used DNA barcoding to identify the contents of camels’ guts, pollen harvested from bees, soil and sea water, even whole biomes.

Other presenters and speakers demonstrated the ever-growing scope and application of barcoding technology, ranging from medical research and parasitology to polar science, fisheries and environmental forensics. What was clear from a number of talks is that the range of applications of genomics technologies to biodiversity issues is now truly staggering, and includes some of our biggest environmental issues, including climate change, biosecurity, pests and disease, and deforestation.

With the success of this conference it feels as though the breadth of the biodiversity community has united to develop DNA barcoding technology and a common library of genetic data, very much like the way astronomers and particle physicists have joined together to gain benefit from massive investments such as space telescopes and particle accelerators. Having now convinced scientists and governments alike of the value and universality of this technology, we hope to build on the momentum of this meeting to bring these scientific and applied communities closer together, seek the resources required to build a barcode of life library for Australasia, and develop a range of biodiversity genomics-based applications to tackle our environmental, trade and production problems.

The conference attracted unprecedented news coverage. Media reports about it reached 34 countries in 15 languages, with coverage by major wire services in the United States, Latin America, Europe and Asia — over 300 publications, and many radio and television interviews.

TERN was a silver sponsor of the conference overall, and specifically sponsored the session on barcoding environmental DNA.

Published in TERN e-Newsletter February 2012

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