By David Schindel

from GeneWatch 26-5
Nov-Dec 2013

courtesy of the Kenya Wildlife ServiceWildlife crime has emerged in recent years as one of the top four international crimes, representing tens of billions of dollars per year and ranking alongside smuggling of drugs, weapons and human slaves. As the price of products made from endangered and protected species has increased, organized crime networks and terrorist organizations have entered this trans-boundary trade. These products include carved ivory, traditional medicines such as powdered rhino horn and lion bone, 'bushmeat' for consumption and religious rituals, exotic pets, leather goods and rare plants valued by landscape designers. To evade detection and prosecution, smugglers have learned how to make it virtually impossible to identify the species of origin by removing the diagnostic morphological features that experts can use to identify the contraband products. Only the DNA in the product can bear witness to the species of origin.

Shortly after DNA barcoding for animals was proposed in Prof. Paul Hebert's 2003 publication, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation of New York sponsored two workshops to develop a roadmap for the development of barcoding as a global research tool. An important part of the roadmap was the establishment of the Consortium for the Barcode of Life (CBOL) through Sloan Foundation support to the Smithsonian Institution. CBOL officially opened its Secretariat Office in the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in September 2004 with the mission to support the development of DNA barcoding as a global standard for species identification. CBOL took on an ambitious program of work to build a coherent, collaborative community of practice, including:

  • Creating the BARCODE data standard for high-quality data records in GenBank, the European Nucleotide Archive and the DNA Data Bank of Japan;
  • Convening Working Groups that would conduct research leading to selection of the standard barcode region for plants, fungi and protists;
  • Facilitating the launch of several major international barcoding 'campaigns' such as the All Birds Barcoding Initiative and FISH-BOL;
  • Engaging the participation of developing countries through outreach workshops in southern, eastern and western Africa, Latin America, east Asia, China and India;
  • Representing DNA barcoding to international organizations such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Convention on Phytosanitary Measures (CPM);
  • Creating a social network for the barcoding community and an informational website to explain barcoding to diverse audiences;
  • Promoting the adoption of barcoding by US governmental agencies such as the Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; and
  • Organizing international barcoding conferences held in London (2005), Taiwan (2007), Mexico City (2009) and Adelaide, South Australia (2011).

At the Adelaide conference, CBOL's Executive Committee decided that CBOL's original mission had been accomplished to a great degree but a new challenge had emerged. Government agencies and private companies had not yet started to formally adopt and invest in barcoding. The problem seemed to reside in the lack of a public reference database of sufficient reliability. Despite the success of the BARCODE data standard in GenBank, barcoding was still viewed as a research tool for taxonomy, not the basis for regulatory or legal affairs. The Executive Committee decided that CBOL should become directly involved in a large and ambitious project to meet and overcome this challenge in one of five areas of application:

  • Protecting endangered species,
  • Enforcing truthful labeling of food in the marketplace,
  • Testing water quality,
  • Regulating labeling of medicinal plants and herbal remedies, and
  • Preventing the international introduction of agricultural pest species.

In July 2012, CBOL was approached by Google Giving with the opportunity to submit a project proposal involving species protection. In October 2012, the Smithsonian received a US$3 million Global Impact Award Barcode to CBOL for the Barcode of Wildlife Project (BWP). The project is structured as a partnership between CBOL and six partner countries. South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria and Mexico began participating immediately and countries in Asia and South America will be selected soon to fill the remaining slots.

BWP has three goals:

  • Create a high-quality public reference database with standardized 'DNA barcodes' for the endangered species that are the highest priority to the partner countries. The project hopes to include 50,000 data records from 10,000 species, including 2,000 protected species and 8,000 closely related and look-alike species;
  • Enable each partner countries to identify crime exhibits by comparing their DNA barcodes with the reference library; and
  • Support efforts by partner countries to adopt DNA barcoding as a standard, sustainable tool for the investigation and prosecution of wildlife crime.

courtesy of the Kenya Wildlife ServiceEach partner country assembles a National Project Committee (NPC) of about 10 representatives of enforcement agencies, prosecutors, and academic researchers in biodiversity science. This mix of people is critical because the project's success relies on participation of both the providers and users of barcode data. Each NPC is co-chaired by an enforcement official and a leading biodiversity research scientist from that partner country.

CBOL has developed a project roadmap with four phases:

1. Planning and assessment of partner country capabilities for DNA research and forensic science, exploration of legal standards for use of wildlife DNA in prosecution, and selection of priority endangered species. The four participating partner countries have completed this phase and the priority species on which they will focus can be seen on the Endangered Species Viewer;

2. Training of researchers, enforcement officials, forensic lab technicians, prosecutors and others;

3. Construction of reference DNA barcode library and testing of forensic lab capabilities to identify species with DNA barcodes; and

4. Implementation, investigation of crimes using DNA barcodes, and prosecutions.

The project's goal is to prepare and empower each partner country to conduct barcoding within its borders, without relying on the export of any biological samples to foreign labs. Simply put, BWP wants to import technology and capability, not to export specimens. Over the course of the project, partner countries will receive support for:

  • Specimen sourcing: CBOL will coordinate construction of the barcode reference library which will be based on voucher specimens from around the world. This budget category covers the cost of technician salary for tissue subsampling, shipment of samples to processing labs, honoraria for taxonomists who will verify species identifications, and management of data and metadata.
  • Processing specimens for construction of the reference barcode library and forensic application: Specimen processing will be done in-country for some partner countries but others without molecular labs will need to export samples, at least initially. This amount will cover lab technician salary, reagents and consumables and data management. Funds are not available for lab facilities or equipment, though CBOL is willing to work with partner countries to seek additional funding for capacity-building. Partner countries will be expected to provide access to laboratory facilities during the project. If the project proves successful, CBOL and Google hope that partner countries will make barcoding a normal part of their budgets for CITES enforcement after the grant ends.
  • Planning, training, and outreach: This category includes the costs of planning meetings, training of technicians, researchers and enforcement officials, outreach to related organizations such as the CITES Secretariat, IUCN, Interpol, the Convention on Biological Diversity, and potential donors. Partner countries will be expected to cover staff salaries for people receiving training, and the costs related to the work of the National Project Committee between planning meetings in which CBOL is directly involved.

The following websites provide useful background information about CBOL and BWP:


David Schindel, PhD, is the Executive Secretary of the Consortium for the Barcode of Life, a project hosted by the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History.

Photos courtesy of the Kenya Wildlife Service.

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