Open Access

The Barcode of Life Initiative: synopsis and prospective societal impacts of DNA barcoding of Fish

Genomics, Society and Policy20073:29

DOI: 10.1186/1746-5354-3-2-29

Published: 15 August 2007


Almost 250 years after the publication of the taxonomy-founding work Systema Naturae, by Carl Linnaeus, the inventory and catalogue of the planet's biodiversity is still far from complete: only ca 1.5 to 1.8 million of an estimated 10+ million species are so far described. Notwithstanding the remarkable merits of the Linnean system, the task is too vast ever to be completed using current conventional approaches. Such a staggering reality, and the customary difficulty that the scientific community and society in general experience to access taxonomic knowledge, has prompted the search for novel tools or approaches for species identification. Such a tool has been recently proposed in the form of a standardised short DNA sequence from an agreedupon region of the genome, which is expected to ultimately provide a means of fast and robust identification of any species on the planet: the DNA barcode. Received with as much enthusiasm by some as skepticism by others, this novel tool was set in motion on a worldwide scale by means of an international consortium of organisations (the Consortium for the Barcoding of Life), thus becoming a large-scale horizontal genomics project. While anchored within the knowledge and principles of taxonomy, DNA barcoding possesses unique characteristics which anticipate a diverse scope of new applications and benefits for society. Notably, it places the completion of the biodiversity catalogue within the reach of a single generation, with the promise to assist greatly in the discovery of new species. Alongside long-term, ultimate goals, such as democratisation of access to taxonomic knowledge and assistance in writing the encyclopaedia of life, there are several more prosaic applications that may also impact society, not only in certain scientific fields, but also in a range of social and economic activities. Here, we will use DNA barcoding of fish as an example to illustrate foreseen applications, and as a basis to stimulate reflection on potential societal impacts of this horizontal genomics project.