Guelph Prof Bar-coding all Species

In his second-floor office at the UNIVERSITY OF GUELPH, Paul Hebert steadies a FedEx package between his black loafers. He pulls excitedly on the cardboard flap, ripping it into five pieces, before revealing the contents - hundreds of tiny test tubes, each containing a single insect leg.

Guelph Prof Bar-coding all Species

In his second-floor office at the UNIVERSITY OF GUELPH, Paul Hebert steadies a FedEx package between his black loafers. He pulls excitedly on the cardboard flap, ripping it into five pieces, before revealing the contents - hundreds of tiny test tubes, each containing a single insect leg. "These are worth $30 each," says Hebert, staring wide-eyed at one of the moth samples from Costa Rica. "That means there's about $30,000 worth of little legs in this box."

Similar packages arrive every day as scientists from around the world try to help Hebert, an evolutionary biologist, in his bold quest to "bar-code" every species on earth. Hebert found that a small snippet of DNA (648 base pairs) from the mitochondrial gene CO1 - which exists in all living things larger than viruses and bacteria - is enough to distinguish species with 98 per cent accuracy, while also being easy and cheap to sequence. He uses legs because "bugs have six of them so they're expendable. If I asked for a wing the specimen would be marred severely."

Hebert first got the idea while looking at bar codes at his local grocery store. He started with 200 moths from his backyard and now works with collaborators in 30 countries. Initially, he had trouble getting traction within Canada's scientific community. "My efforts were rejected as frantically over-ambitious," says Hebert, 59. Only after earning international funding did Canadian grant dollars start pouring in. So far, he's collected more than $30 million.

In late September, he moved from a small lab into the school's new Biodiversity Institute of Ontario, a 16,000-sq.-foot "bar-coding factory." Inside the red and yellow brick building is equipment worth $5 million - including DNA-extracting robots - and 30 full-time employees. Hebert hopes to increase his staff by about 50 per cent as he attempts to have 500,000 species in his database by 2014 (he currently has 25,000). That's impressive: three centuries of scientific research have revealed only 1.7 million species.

He boasts that all of the world's birds, mammals and fish will be registered in five years. So will nearly every species in Canada. During the process, the team has discovered hundreds of never-before-known species. To log endangered ones, Hebert's team searches out samples at museums. In a joint effort with the ROM, he has an employee collecting samples from its frozen mammal collection. "Within 20 years," he says, "we'll know how many species are on the planet."

This project, however, is about more than just creating a master list. Airline authorities have sent Hebert bird tissue peeled off planes so he can identify the exact species and they can study flying patterns. Recently, customs inspectors in California contacted him when they found what they suspected were poisonous puffer-fish (a Japanese delicacy with tight importing restrictions) that was labelled cod. "When it's a filet, it's pretty hard to know if it's a puffer-fish or not," says Hebert. "When we bar-coded the tissue, sure enough, they were puffer-fish."

Last year, a Toronto manufacturer of TV dinners called Hebert after finding a mouse head in its pasta. The company wanted to know if the mouse head had been lopped off at the factory in Toronto or at the processing plant in Asia. Hebert doesn't usually do "one-offs" but was intrigued. "Turns out, there are genetic variants between house mice around the world," he says. "We were able to tell, unambiguously, that it came from Southeast Asia." Bar-coding will also make it easier, he says, to identify and intercept invasive species before they do too much damage to a region.

And although it's still years from being affordable for the general public, a hand-held device is currently in the works that will scan DNA (like, for example, from a feather in the forest) and match it to a species in the bar-code library before linking with a digital encyclopedia of life - a separate Internet initiative in its early stages that will have 500,000 individual species' sites.

Hebert, who says he has no time to waste, hurries around his new building with nervous excitement. Half-joking, he talks about staying open for business 365 days a year. "Why do you need Christmas off?" he asks two staffers. They laugh nervously, fully aware that their boss and his wife, Judy, spent the holidays last year holed up in a tiny hillside cabin near Ellensborough, Australia, scavenging for insects. On Christmas morning they collected 300 moths - including several very rare quarter-pounders. "It was the perfect Christmas gift," he says. "That's not strange, is it?"

See also GENETICS.

Maclean's January 15, 2007