Barcoding Life

Interspersed with all of my day job work (spending half my time on for Education right now), I get to have exciting meetings with social entrepreneurs with incredible ideas. Last week, I had three of those meetings! Here's the first one:

My very first ever angel investor, Sheldon Breiner, contacted me on short notice to ask if I wanted to have dinner and a brainstorm with Winnie Hallwachs and Dan Janzen, a pair of U Penn professors with a dream: a handheld barcode reader for life. The concept is that Joe Average can walk into his backyard (or his field), and find out what species there are there. What's that ant? What bird left a feather in our garden? What's this plant doing here?

The concept of DNA barcoding is deceptively simple: you choose a particular section of genetic material shared by all animals, but where a 600 or 700 base sequence is pretty much unique to each species. That means you can collect a whole bunch of data from specimens and have a database that links that segment of DNA to a unique or nearly unique species. It also means you can build a very cheap device to gather this data: Dan and Winnie were talking about something well under $100.

We spent the meeting discussing ways of getting the project funded as well as how to build the device, with Sheldon as well as Brad Zlotnick and Jim Larrick, two outstanding physician-scientists (I'm simplifying a lot here). The Canadian government has apparently committed $50 million to this $150 million project (the idea of DNA barcoding being an extremely clever, and Canadian, invention).

I'm not an expert in biotech by any stretch, but the implications of such a device are mindblowing. Imagine the impact on farming if you can accurately determine your pests instead of blasting your crops with broad-spectrum 'cides. The impact on medicine to cheaply identify the presence of pathogens in samples. And, finally, Dan's and Winnie's dream of a human society much more in tune with the life around them.

More information at the Consortium for the Barcode of Life.


David Huer said…
The implications for DNA barcoding include bringing democracy back to farmers. Several years ago, Monsanto successfully sued a Canadian farmer for patent infringement, when Monsanto's patented seed blew onto his fields. Previously, a farmer could not know at first glance which seeds were Monsanto-Contaminated and which were natural. With DNA barcoding, farmers can conceivably sue chemical companies for genetically contaminating their fields.

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