DNA Barcoding Proposal Up for Award

April 27, 2010 - News Release

How do you get teenagers around the world to help preserve the Earth's biodiversity? Make a game of it. A University of Guelph biologist hopes he can persuade the rest of the world to help him attract $200,000 to do just that.

A DNA barcoding proposal led by Prof. Robert Hanner of the Department of Integrative Biology has made the shortlist for this year’s international competition for a MacArthur Foundation award.

This week, the Guelph-based group posted a three-minute animated film on the competition website explaining its proposed social-networking game for youths to help catalogue the planet’s living species. Now the team hopes online viewers will comment on the proposal to help raise its ranking as part of the judging process. The competition results will be announced in May.

“If the project is supported, it will be a significant advance for public interest in science and barcoding,” says Hanner, the associate director of the Canadian Barcode of Life Network based in U of G’s Biodiversity Institute of Ontario (BIO).

The proposal is among 50 finalists for grants in this year’s Digital Media and Learning competition funded by the MacArthur Foundation. Hanner hopes to snare a design award worth $200,000 to develop the social-networking game, Global Biodiversity Challenge.

That game would see groups of youths from around the world taking part in the International Barcode of Life (iBOL) project. By working with scientists and educators from more than two dozen countries, teenagers will help to profile diverse species of living things using genetic technology developed at Guelph by integrative biology professor Paul Hebert.

DNA barcoding allows scientists to identify species of living things using a tiny but characteristic snippet of genetic material.

Under iBOL, researchers hope to use barcoding to process five million specimens representing 500,000 species of living things in five years. Fewer than two million species have been catalogued using traditional methods during the past 250 years. Estimates of the number of species on Earth range from 10 million to 100 million.

In Hanner’s proposed networking game, groups of youngsters would earn points for their collections based on difficulty, accuracy and rarity of species. They would also see their finds published in the iBOL database and gain public credit for their contributions as citizen scientists.

Youth groups have already helped in barcoding projects. Last year, high school students sampled fish sold in stores and restaurants for DNA analysis at BIO, revealing widespread market substitution of species.
“We want to teach them how to use the technology to address socially relevant questions and engage in discovery through an online, collaborative, project-based learning environment,” says Hanner.

U of G’s partners in the MacArthur award application are Spongelab Interactive, a Toronto-based educational gaming company run by Guelph graduates Jeremy Friedberg and Andrea Bielecki; the Encyclopedia of Life; the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University; the J. Craig Venter Institute; the Natural History Museum in London; Coastal Marine Biolabs; and Bioscience Education Canada.

The Digital Media and Learning competition was created in 2007 to encourage novel uses of new media for learning. Last year’s winners included projects on global development, oceans, Canadian history, mobile literacy and digital democracy.

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, 519-824-4120, Ext. 53338, or l.hunt@exec.uoguelph.ca, or Deirdre Healey, Ext. 56982 or d.healey@exec.uoguelph.ca.

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