By Jeremy Gruber

from GeneWatch 26-5
Nov-Dec 2013

As a bioethical organization, the Council for Responsible Genetics often finds itself in the role of the critic. We identify and raise awareness of bad science and the excesses, misplaced priorities and foolhardiness attendant to reductionist approaches toward developing genetic science and technology. Rarely do we see the need to play the role of cheerleader among a loud and diverse chorus promoting biotechnology development at all costs.

DNA barcoding is a critical exception.

DNA barcoding is a simple, standardized way of identifying species from a small sample of DNA. In animals, for example, a set of about 650 base pairs is scanned, with unique results for each species. That "barcode" can then be searched against a reference library for a matching barcode, which will tell you what species your sample came from.

DNA barcoding has almost limitless potential as both a conservation and consumer protection tool. It can be used to enhance protection of endangered species by aiding in the identification of bushmeat and other animal products. It can be used to conduct detailed biosurveys to identify what lives in a specific area in order to determine whether the ecosystem is in distress, or whether protected or invasive species are present. It can be used to identify falsely labeled consumer products, from sushi to herbal supplements to medicine. And it's such a simple tool that non-scientists can pursue it for both educational purposes and the common good.

You would think such a fantastic tool, developed as a result of the revolution in our understanding of genetics, would receive regular attention in both major media and biotechnology-oriented publications.

You'd be wrong.

Indeed, in the realm of conservation genetics, most media and public attention has been drawn in recent months to discussions of resurrecting extinct and endangered species through cloning, an eyebrow-raising proposal that has succeeded in grabbing headlines and funding for conferences but which has dubious practical benefits in any near term for conservation. Meanwhile, every day around the world scientists are developing DNA barcoding technology, building reference libraries, and diversifying its applications.

For these very reasons, this special issue of GeneWatch is devoted to getting our priorities straight by offering our readers a comprehensive picture of the benefits of this important technology and the challenges we face in promoting its broader acceptance and use.

Jeremy Gruber, JD, is President of the Council for Responsible Genetics.

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