DNA Barcoding and Citizen Science

| 2/20/2014 10:30:00 AM

Tags: Genetics, DNA, GeneWatch,

DNA barcoding art

Easy enough for kids and amateur scientists to use, you might say DNA barcoding is inherently democratic.

In 2008, I happened to see an intriguing news story about two New York City high school girls who had used a new DNA-based identification method to determine if their neighborhood sushi restaurants were selling mislabeled fish. That was my first encounter with the technique known as DNA barcoding. Since then, I have helped hundreds of amateur scientists use barcoding to question the identity of everything from 'heirloom' oranges to 'beef' meatballs to the diversity of Alaskan plants.

The idea of identifying species through a very short genetic sequence, rather like the manner in which a supermarket barcode identifies products, was first proposed in a 2003 paper by Dr. Paul Hebert, a researcher at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. The beauty of barcoding is that even non-specialists can obtain barcodes from tiny amounts of tissue and conclusively identify a species. Compare this to standard taxonomic identification, which requires intact specimens (often impossible in situations where you want to know the identity of foodstuffs) and an expert able to distinguish subtle anatomical differences between closely-related species using morphological features like the shape and color of the organism's parts. As The New York Times put it in their article about the abovementioned 'SushiGate' kids:

"What may be most impressive about the experiment is the ease with which the students accomplished it. Although the testing technique is at the forefront of research, the fact that anyone can take advantage of it by sending samples off to a laboratory meant the kind of investigative tools once restricted to Ph.D.'s and crime labs can move into the hands of curious diners and amateur scientists everywhere."

Readers of GeneWatch are probably more aware than most of the astounding rate at which DNA science in general is progressing. What they may not know is that there is a growing movement to democratize the technology, to put it into the hands of the public for the greater good. Professional scientists like myself have been inspired to found open, public-serving laboratories that are accessible to anyone who wants to pursue a safe and useful project. Genspace, which I co-founded and direct, is a nonprofit community biolab located in Brooklyn, NY. We provide workspace, access to equipment, and mentorship in the biosciences. Genspace offers adult education courses, free public events such as open barcoding nights, low-cost lab space for inventors, and is a place for students to work on projects for science competitions. One of the best uses of community labs is the kind of DIY investigation that can tell you more about your environment, health, or food. Is that goat cheese made with cow's milk? Bring it in and we'll teach you to barcode it. Want to know if your soy milk is Roundup Ready? We can teach you to determine that too, it's an even simpler protocol than barcoding. We want everyone to become more literate in the biosciences in order to join the discussion about them from a position of knowledge as opposed to forming opinions based on ignorance and fear. And I strongly feel that the best way to learn is hands-on in the lab.