Barcoding Species

The philosophical conundrums presented by the concept of species are immense, offering an expanse of theoretical and methodological controversies entailed by identifying species—either classifying “new” ones or locating existing ones amidst mutable taxonomical criteria and schemas. Much of this complexity seems to dissipate in the face of developing technologies that heighten our capacities to identify and observe species, though maybe without knowing them any better than we do now—just recognizing them more efficiently. New techniques such as DNA barcoding, satellite and cellular tagging, and drones, help alleviate much of our inability to recognize species, making them more familiar and accessible, but without contributing much yet to the taxonomic knowledge projects concerned with species. That is, these developing abilities to monitor and track species opens a critical rift with the centuries-old endeavors to know species through classification.

DNA barcoding is increasingly in the news, though its role in taxonomy and biology is somewhat disparaged. This technology is about identifying rather than discovering and classifying species; its uses are principally aimed towards regulatory and commercial concerns and functions, more than epistemological projects. The overarching goal towards which it is directed is moving species steadily towards ever-growing catalogues—that cultural form whose meanings and uses remain principally defined by the marketing innovation by Montgomery Ward in 1872, as the primary mechanism behind his mail-order empire. Not surprisingly, the technology’s inventor, Paul D.N. Herbert (University of Guelph), conceived of it as he reflected upon the singular capacity of a single form to identity, track, and properly all of the items in a supermarket (Wade, 2004). Today its uses are largely regulatory and commercial; it represents an effort at standardizing species, or our recognition of them, reflecting a principal concern with markets rather than taxonomy; this is principally applied to species that already have established niches in our commodity chains.

The growing applications of this technology reflect a fundamental unfamiliarity with the species, or at least their commodity forms, of which we are most fond. This was revealed in the news item that brought DNA barcoding into public awareness. In 2011, The Boston Globe published the results of a major investigative report on the mislabeling of fish in area restaurants—their core finding: 48% of the fish sold to consumers was billed with the wrong species name. Undesirable species—hake, escolar or haddock, for instance—replaced popular, prized, and presumably more flavorful ones, such as cod and red snapper and white tuna. Strikingly, no customers seemed to have noticed; chefs and producers often pleaded ignorance, too, based on a wide-spread inability to recognize the difference between species once the fish was filleted. For that matter, a follow up investigation one year latter netted much the same results, with little or no change in mislabeling practices, suggesting that consumer had not grown more discerning about the species they were eating.

But the testing technology certainly took off. The basic technique, developed in 2003 by Hebert, is intriguing because its foundation lies in keying on crosscutting sameness for all species: a few commonly shared genes—CO1 for animals; two chloroplast genes (rbcL and matK) in plants; and the internal transcribed spacer (ITS) region with fungi. Any sampled specimen can yield a DNA sequence that “can be used to identify different species, in the same way a supermarket scanner uses the familiar black stripes of the UPC barcode to identify your purchases,” according to the International Barcode of Life. The Boston reporters, over a five-month period, sent samples for testing to the Biodiversity Institute, University of Guelph, where Herbert is based. Specimens’ DNA was extracted and read for a gene fragment that was then matched with items in the Institute’s library, the Barcode of Life Data System or BOLD. Reporters similarly explained to their readers that this technique is called barcoding, “because, just as a supermarket scanner reads a barcode to distinguish beans from milk, the DNA snippet separates one species from another.” Directly following this report the FDA, which maintains a list of acceptable market names for species, went public with their own DNA database for barcoding frequently consumed species. Their collection features specimens identified by taxonomists at the Smithsonian Institution. The FDA, though it had been working with scientists at the University of Guelph, opted to build their own “library” because the one in Guelph was “not designed to be a regulatory database”.

More than fraud is associated with misidentifying species. The report revealed the perils and complications of the massive commodity chains that bring fish to American tables. With imported seafood comprising close to 90% of the fish Americans eat, problems arise from where the fish were caught to how they were processed, as well as marketed. The problems with mislabeling fish range from putting diners at risk of allergic reactions or exposure to chemical banned in the U.S. to undermining conservation efforts. “Seafood substitution makes it harder for consumers to accept that some species, including red snapper, are overfished, since it regularly appears on restaurant menus.” As well, there is the profiteering of marketing “high-value species” then switching them out on the plate of for less expensive ones.

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