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Scientists Tackle DNA Barcoding 'Resistance'

Jia Hepeng and T. V. Padma

Flickr/Victor Svensson

[BARCELONA] Scientists leading international projects to use DNA barcoding for biodiversity mapping are proposing a series of guidelines in an attempt to overcome the reluctance of developing countries to take up the technology.

Scientists announced the proposal at a session of the third Euroscience Open Forum this week (21 July).

"At our upcoming international workshop to be held in November, we will propose a code of conduct to avoid DNA barcoding being carried out improperly," says David Schindel, executive secretary of Consortium for the Barcode of Life.

The guidelines will include abiding by local laws in obtaining samples, trying to increase the capacity to carry out barcoding when carrying out studies in developing countries, and protecting rather than exploiting genetic resources.

Initiated by the US-based National Museum of Natural History, of which Schindel is a senior research fellow, the consortium plans to use DNA barcoding to identify tens of thousands of species in the next five years.

The uptake of DNA barcoding to record the biodiversity of developing countries has been slow, due to concerns that sending samples abroad for barcoding may result in the piracy of genetic resources, Schindel told SciDev.Net.

But some countries have initiated DNA barcode projects, including Brazil, India, Kenya and South Africa.

The technique identifies known species and records new ones by sequencing a specific, short area of mitochondrial DNA, previously identified and agreed by scientists.

Mitochondrial DNA mutates at a fast rate, meaning the region of DNA should vary enough between species to separate even those that are closely related.

Developing countries' concern about biopiracy is rational and in the long term it can only be solved by developing countries building their own capacity to carry out barcoding, says Schindel.

But in the short term developing countries lack the funding, equipment, and expertise to do this, yet refuse to provide samples. "We need to take active measures to develop a trusting relationship [between developing countries and researchers in the industrialised world] to overcome the dilemma," Schindel says.

As the first step, developing country researchers could do some initial studies with their samples under the guidance of foreign experts, the fruits of which could persuade their governments to invest in barcoding, he says.

And many practical measures can be taken to overcome the legal restrictions on exporting samples from developing countries, says Schindel. For example, while China has many restrictions on sample exportation, as the country has become an active player in the consortium, individual applications can be used to gain access to samples.