The Bar Codes of Life

Today’s Wall Street Jounal (subscription required) has a fascinating topic in "The Science Journal", written by Sharon Begley. The subject is the use of genes to identify plants and animals.

From bugs to birds to people, research shows, short DNA sequences from the right gene can uniquely identify a species, like a bar code uniquely identifies consumer products.  The question is, which gene can serve as a bar code for the planet’s 2 million species of palnts and animals?

…zoologists have found a gene that works for animals.  Botanists are racing to do it for palnts.  If they succeed, any species of plant or animal could be identified just by dropping a leaf, feather or other sample into a hand-held device that would read the gene sequence, transmit that data to a central database, and receive the reply, "that’s a sword fern".

The gene that serves as a bar code for the world’s animals, called cytochrome oxidase, works because it is present in every animal but different in every one, too. "You can distinguish one clam from another," marvels Dr. Cameron.

…Bar coding plants has proven tougher than  bar coding animals, however.  Plants hybridize like crazy, and have so much identical DNA that finding a gene sequence that one species has and no others do is a challenge.

The story goes on to report that scientists are confident that they will solve the plant gene puzzle in the short term, and the bar coding of life on Earth will soon be complete.

What implications might this have for your scribe and his humble reader(s)?  Well, imagine a trip to the nearby Earthfare to purchase "Wild Alaskan Salmon", per your doctor’s orders, a return to the manse, where a scale from the evening meal is dropped into the Plant/Animal Bar Code Scanner, and, sacre bleu!, the result shows the purchase actually came from Joe’s Salmon Farm in Indiana, Pennsylvania.  Maybe those Johns Island beefsteak tomatoes just arrived by air from Camarillo, CA. Or perhaps your morning bowl of South Carolina strawberries actually originated in Georgia!

Better yet, take this zinnia (courtesy of Pam)

Zinnia_iiii_27_july_evening_2006_1_2Is it really Pam’s, or did she take a picture of someone else’s plant.  Imagine the opportunities for honesty and truth telling that will be the inevitable result of bar coding plants and animals. A new level of consumer confidence, the end of cattle rustling and horse stealing, and truth in grocery selling. With renewed confidence does your humble reporter face the challenges of the 21st century.

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