Guelph's answer to the BlackBerry is in professor Paul Hebert's hands — or will be, eventually.
Hebert, the chair of the new Biodiversity Institute of Ontario which officially opened last Wednesday at the University of Guelph, is leading a team of 35 scientists who are working with a new technology to almost instantly access biological information on any of the 10 million animal species on Earth. That technology will ultimately be used in a hand-held device that will probably look more like a "Star Trek" tricoder or a grocery store bar code scanner than a BlackBerry. But in terms of impact, this technology could be huge.
Hebert and his team are working on what's become known as bar coding technology, something he was pivotal in developing four years ago, to help identify and label species. It involves analyzing a snippet of an organism's DNA in the lab, and establishing a unique DNA bar code for that species. That code can then be quickly compared electronically to a computerized catalogue of other bar codes. If there's a match, the identity is affirmed, or a relationship can be established with other species.
Now imagine the possibilities. There's that classic scenario described in a University of Guelph student-produced publication called Focus on DNA Barcoding, in which a scientist such as Hebert is hiking through a remote area, finds a feather or tuft of hair, scans it with his BarBerry and shouts "Eureka!"
It's a reasonable scenario. Many species have yet to be identified. Using conventional methods, such as comparing size, shape and colour, researchers have named 1.2 million species over the past 200 or so years.
But that leaves about eight million species still to go, creating the potential for a lot of "Eureka!" moments, all over the world. It also underlines the need for research to establish the wide-ranging computerized catalogue of life.
But a far more familiar application will likely be at places such as international border crossings. There, inspection officials could use DNA scanners to identify insects or plants that might turn into invasive species.
Or how about being able to scan the likes of problematic pet food to quickly figure out what's in it? Or scanning animal feed to make sure its contents are all federally approved?
Or taking a BarBerry into a farmer's field to scan the soil for its contents, to help with precision applications of key fertilizer ingredients, or to help identify pests? As Hebert says, farmers live on the land, and the land is ripe with active, living organisms that both help and hinder production.
What an advantage it would be to know exactly what's there, to be able to scan for biological activity.
This will all take time. Hebert estimates the hand-held device is about 10 years from hitting the market. And he says another decade after that will be needed to catalogue all species on Earth.
But what a concept — all species on Earth!
Hebert and his team have certainly captured the imagination of the science community, both those who conduct research, and those who support it.
Alan Wildeman, vice-president for research at the University of Guelph, says the technology has the potential to literally change the way the world looks at life on the planet. He likened last Wednesday's opening of the $4.2-million biodiversity institute to the fabled voyage of the HMS Beagle, which carried Charles Darwin to fame.
And Ken Knox, president of the Ontario Innovation Trust which along with the likes of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Genome Canada, Ontario Genomics Institute, Canada Foundation for Innovation and others, has invested millions of public dollars into developing DNA bar coding, was optimistic about taxpayers seeing return on their money.
Indeed, if the BarBerry, or whatever they end up calling it, becomes commonplace, the returns will be significant, in many ways.
Owen Roberts teaches agricultural communications at the University of Guelph.