World's Marine Museum Collections to Be 'Barcoded'

January 25, 2008 - News Release

A University of Guelph project that aims to identify and catalogue the estimated 230,000 species of things living in and around the world's oceans has received a $1-million grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

The funding will pay for DNA barcoding of up to 85,000 specimens in four major museum collections around the world and includes $240,000 for U of G's role in co-ordinating these field projects.

"It's difficult to identify everything that moves in the sea just by the human eye," said Dirk Steinke, the principal investigator for the international Marine Barcode of Life project. He'll oversee the initiative from the Canadian Centre for DNA Barcoding at U of G's Biodiversity Institute of Ontario.

Until now, experts had to spend time examining specimens under the microscope and consulting references to identify creatures.

DNA barcoding developed at Guelph allows scientists to identify species by reading a telltale segment of genetic material in a minuscule tissue sample, like scanning a supermarket barcode.

"This new funding provides a way to do DNA barcoding quickly," said Steinke. "We have telescopes to look for planets and we have no simple idea what lives in the ocean."

The specimen collections that will be analyzed are housed at the Florida Museum of Natural History, the Museum National d'Histoire Naturel in Paris and Queensland Museum in Brisbane, Australia.

Steinke and other scientists will ramp up marine DNA barcoding efforts beyond the 8,000 species catalogued under this international project during the past two years. By 2010, they hope to have barcodes for at least 50,000 species in the database.

Knowing what lives in the world's oceans is a key to understanding marine systems and to protecting those creatures, Steinke said. He says it will also help in such tricky problems as identifying fishing catches or preventing invasion of foreign species into Canadian waters.

Researchers also expect the project will help to trace evolutionary lineages by using genetic material to sort out what's related to what. For instance, a fish in the Pacific may look the same as something caught in the Atlantic, but they may turn out to be entirely different species.

The Marine Barcode of Life is a joint project of the Consortium of the Barcode of Life and the Census of Marine Life, both international initiatives based in Washington. The marine barcoding project will provide data for the Census of Marine Life, which involves researchers from around the world. Scheduled for release in 2010, the census will include the most comprehensive list of species of creatures known to live in the oceans.

The Canadian Centre for DNA Barcoding is run by Prof. Paul Hebert, Integrative Biology. Hebert is also scientific director of the Canadian Barcode of Life Network, a group of researchers from institutes, government agencies, universities and other organizations across the country.

Besides cataloguing ocean creatures, Guelph scientists work on similar projects involving animals, fungi, plants and one-celled organisms.

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a philanthropic nonprofit institution, was established in 1934 by Sloan, then President and Chief Executive Officer of the General Motors Corporation.

Dirk Steinke
519 824-4120, Ext. 53759

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, 519-824-4120, Ext. 53338, or Deirdre Healey, Ext. 56982,

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