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In The Future, DNA Barcoding Will Hunt Down Endangered Species Smugglers

When officials want to know if you’re toting a purse made from an endangered alligator, they won’t have to call in the alligator expert. A simple $5 DNA test will let them know exactly what animal our products came from.

The Smithsonian’s Consortium for the Barcode of Life (CBOL), is taking an innovative approach to the problem of protecting the 1.8 million species in danger of extinction. The international project, which is receiving a $3 million grant from Google, aims to make DNA barcoding the gold standard for identifying biological species.

As organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation invest in tech-based takes on farming, sanitation, and nutrition, we’ll slowly start to find out if technology can solve the planet’s largest challenges. But a new program, the Global Impact Awards by Google, believes there isn’t enough funding for technology innovation in the nonprofit world. So Google announced this week that it’s investing $23 million in grants to six groups that are "pushing the [nonprofit] sector forward with technology."

The CBOL’s origins can be traced back to 2004, when a Canadian researcher claimed that it was possible to tell species apart using a short piece of DNA. "It seems almost too good to be true because genetics are so complicated, but it seems to work unbelievably well," says Dr. David Schindel, the executive secretary of CBOL. Researchers have since used that discovery for basic research on evolution and taxonomy, looking at its potential uses for social good: keeping agricultural pests from being imported by accident, stopping invasive species, and telling apart species of mosquitos that carry malaria from those that don’t. One of the biggest applications is in protecting endangered species.

Lots of endangered species come through airports, but it’s often hard to pinpoint them. Was that tin of caviar legally harvested? Is that alligator purse made from an endangered species? In the past, detection methods have been slow, pricey, and sometimes outright unavailable. Identifying species by morphological distinction (i.e. shape, size and color) is one common method, but it usually requires an expert on-hand—and even they may not always be able to make the call if the specimen is damaged. A relatively fast and reliable method could make a huge difference in stopping illegal trade.

That’s what CBOL wants to create with Google’s cash: a reference database of DNA barcodes for endangered species and close relatives that they may be mistaken—one that could be used to quickly and cheaply identify things coming over the border. So when an attorney for a smuggler contends that, say, an alligator is just a close relative of an endangered species, "we want to be able to say, we know all about the barcodes of the closely related thing, and the thing your client had was not one of those," explains Schindel.

At the Smithsonian alone, researchers have already barcoded several thousand bird species. There are over 100,000 species of wildlife that have been barcoded in total; CBOL is targeting 10,000 species with five specimens barcoded per species for its database. DNA can be taken from zoos, natural history museums, aquariums, frozen tissue collections, and any other place that holds biological materials.

CBOL is partnering with six developing countries (South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Mexico, Brazil, and an as-yet-undetermined Southeast Asian country) to start, working with law enforcement agencies, conservation officials, prosecuting attorneys, and judges to find out what kind of evidence they need for their legal system and to make sure the barcode data measures up. CBOL is also having preliminary conversations with U.S. agencies, including the USDA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

With CBOL’s system, all officials have to do if they suspect that a specimen is being traded illegally is to get a small sample of tissue and ship it to a nearby lab. That lab, typically at a university or national museum, will put the material in a tube to crush it up. It takes an hour or two to extract DNA; another process that makes billions of copies of the DNA (the barcode region) takes about half an hour. After that, the DNA goes through a sequencing machine, and an hour or two after that, the raw data is ready. The whole process takes four to six hours. Once the data is available, it’s transferred to a website, where it’s compared with barcodes in the reference library. The total cost of getting an ID for a suspicious specimen: $5.

Two years from now, CBOL hopes to have a public database on the web. "We want to help [developing countries] set up labs in-country to rapidly analyze the evidence that’s confiscated, and we want to make sure samples are collected in legal fashion and analyzed to stand up in court," says Schindel.

Google’s other grantees—all chosen because of their potential to have a transformational impact, their "Googliness" (nimble, entrepreneurial, audaciousness), and potential for project completion within two to three years—include Charity: Water (piloting real-time water monitoring technology in Africa),, and the World Wildlife Fund (for implementing sensors and wildlife tagging technologies). "We’re trying with these grants to not only do good in the immediate term, but we’re trying to also push a meme here," says Jacquelline Fuller, director of charitable giving and advocacy at Google. "The meme is that philanthropy can be just as data-driven as the rest of the work that we do."