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DNA Barcoding - Science Helping Farmers Identify Friend from Foe

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Media Relations
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

Did you know that moths have a barcode in them? Viruses, bacteria, and moulds do, too. It's found in their DNA.

DNA barcoding uses a very short section of DNA – a genetic sequence – taken from a standardized region of tissue to identify organisms at the genetic level. Because no two species have the same DNA, this segment acts like the black stripes of the Universal Product Code (UPC) to create a unique identification sequence.

Once the DNA barcodes are created, researchers then record them in national and internationally recognized databases to produce an accurate catalogue of life on earth. This catalogue can be used to monitor organism numbers, their movements, and to track changes.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada is taking the lead on creating and adding thousands of DNA barcodes to national and international databases.

Using specimens from AAFC's extensive national collections, Canadian researchers will identify species and assign their DNA barcode. Adding these codes to the Barcode of Life Database system will help secure agricultural ecosystems in Canada and around the world and protect the environment on which farmers depend.

For example, a small moth closely resembling the native non-pest Carrion Flower Moth is discovered aboard a shipment of import goods. The moth must be identified and classified as native or quarantine/invasive before that shipment can be released. While the two moths appear similar, the one found on the imported goods is a Leek moth, recently introduced from Europe to North America and devastating on all crops related to onions. Though these moths are extremely small and very difficult to differentiate using traditional taxonomic techniques, their DNA barcodes are unique.

An organism registered with a DNA barcode can be accurately identified in seconds, easing the flow of trade while protecting the environment.

"No two sequences from that part of the genome are the same between most species. So you can read them the same way the scanner in the supermarket reads the bar code on a box of crackers. You feed the sequence into a computer, it compares them to the sequences from known organisms in your database, and within seconds, it tells you exactly what you're dealing with."

– Dr. André Lévesque, Lead Research Scientist, DNA Barcoding

For farmers, this technology facilitates the rapid identification of bugs in the field as pests or non-pests, helping with decisions about pest-control measures. Researchers hope handheld mobile devices will one day be able to read these barcodes to identify different species by testing tissue samples on site and comparing them with a digital database.

The DNA barcoding information will be available globally to aid in rapid and accurate evidence-based decision making regarding quarantine and invasive organisms, protect our ecosystem, and improve trade.

The Government of Canada has a long history of cataloguing the nation's biodiversity and protecting it from invasive and quarantine species. Previous identification techniques relied on traditional taxonomic methods that required extensive specialized training and are time-consuming.

DNA barcoding offers a faster, more cost effective, and accurate means of identifying specimens and determining whether they are native, invasive, or should be quarantined. It will facilitate the Government of Canada's efforts to protect Canada's biodiversity, agriculture, and trade.

Dr. Lévesque was awarded a 2014 Public Service Award of Excellence for his pioneering work in the development of cutting-edge next-generation DNA sequencing and macroarray diagnostics protocols that greatly reduce the impact of harmful plant pathogens on producers across the country, as well as on the Government of Canada's regulatory environment.

As these initiatives continue, genomics research will keep adding to the solutions farmers depend on for the future of agriculture and will benefit agricultural producers, consumers and trade.


Photo Gallery

Dr. André Levesque
AAFC's Dr. André Levesque working with a DNA sequencing computer.

Related Information

Video: DNA Barcoding

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