Barcoding Life, response from the innovators

I recently posted in the Beneblog on Barcoding Life, based on a dinner with Dan Janzen and Winnie Hallwachs. I just received a response from these two dynamic scientists, and felt it was well worth sharing!

If there ever was a circumstance where a "single" technology - a dirt cheap back pocket reusable DNA barcorder - will transform people-disease-people relationships and equally transform people-biodiversity relationships, this is it. Yes, it needs the gadget and it needs the global DNA sequence snippet library for all species. The former seems really to be emerging, wanting only a $10 m nudge. But I see the latter, quite literally tens of millions of identified and vouchered DNA barcodes, as the huge task ahead of us (and as of this year, a bit behind us as well). This is a task where speed counts both before wild biodiversity is gone, and to incentivate keeping it in the game. The peculiarity of this task is that there is already a global army of biologists and taxonomists out there who really are up for putting their sweat equity and IP on the table to get the samples to the barcode factory, if they can get the funds to prime their on-site pumps. The scorpions of Africa? The dungbeetles of Central America? The ferns of Malaya? The aphids and ants of the USA? There really are - believe it or not - actual people out there who will get those samples to the robot if iBOL can meet the additionality to their day jobs, their hobbies, their loves.
That is what the $100 m is needed for.

This is one of those peculiar opportunities where a $100 m check will both jump-start a process globally and set in motion a self-reinforcing, self-multiplying process of positive feed-back loops in a jillion public and private sectors. More knowledge leads to yet more emotion and reason to get yet more knowledge. Like when you first discovered an open stack library in second grade. We do not know any other global, society-wide, transformational, human-driven process that can be bought for $100 m. View it from a venture capital standpoint. If ten angels were to do 11 projects each this year, instead of their usual 10 each, each knowing that the return on one of the 11 would be the transformation of the world, would that not resonate? And by the way, while the venture capitalist cannot dictate terms to biodiversity, by getting on this Board he or she will be exposed to a far more incredible world than all of human imagination will ever be able to gin up. Seeing the world through the eyes of a barcorder, through really reading the wild world, will be easily as eye-opening as the consequences of learning to read in first grade.

And on top of the global army of biodiversity samplers and barcoders there is already an organizational structure - CBOL, the Consortium for the Barcodes of Life - beating the drum, nudging the teams, exhorting the converted and the skeptics alike. But for all those afficionados and users of biodiversity - all 10,000,000-plus species we share with, compete with, avoid and embrace - the DNA barcode promise remains largely cold until the minor additionality costs per person, per species, per voucher are found somewhere. There is already a science/engineering process in place, proof of concepted, a barcode factory perking along on the backs of personal efforts and your tax dollars at work. But the barcode factory too needs a boost so as to go forth and multiply. Not encouraging to invent reading without having a book industry.

Human industry is now fascinated with capture, flow, distribution, distortion of information coming at a firehose rate. But that is human-generated information. We plunge on ignoring the immense body of naturally-occurring information - called wild species and what they do - because there is no hole in your computer to put a feather, a bit of mushroom, a fish bone, a cockroach leg or an aphid. If, when, we cannot read it, it is the enemy, it is firewood, it is biofuel - it is dull, green and boring (and bites). No one lives closer to it than the 80% of humanity not living the good life. Give that 80% the opportunity to know thy enemy, thy friend, thy associate, thy partner, and all of our and their lives will be much richer, much better, much more seeing. Democratization of wild biodiversity, and what humanity can know about it, is the operative word. A cheap, reusable, backpocket DNA barcoder can give us all that.

Jim, this is one of the great things that technology can give humanity - the ability to know that which is not humanity, but has made us what we are and here and there still lives side by side with us.

And thank you again for being good listeners.


Dan and Winnie


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