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After having a moment of realization while in a supermarket, I found a method to distinguish the countless species that inhabit Earth.
Environment Science

After having a moment of realization while in a supermarket, I found a method to distinguish the countless species that inhabit Earth.


When I was young, I would explore the rural areas near the Great Lakes in Canada, gathering moths and butterflies. It was a peaceful and picturesque experience. During the day, I would search the fields and woods for butterflies. In the evening, I would set up a white sheet and UV light in my backyard, waking up early in the morning to examine the collection of moths.

As I reached adulthood, I had developed the ability to visually recognize approximately 700 different species of butterflies and moths. This was achieved through analyzing the patterns and colors found on their wings and bodies.

In 1972, I relocated to Australia and continued my collection. However, I faced challenges as I strived to gain a comprehensive understanding of my beloved group of organisms. Identifying them became an overwhelming task, as the species in Australia were vastly different from those found in my home country. My mind was unable to keep up with the constant recognition of new species.

The situation I was facing worsened quickly. In the 1970s, I organized trips to Papua New Guinea where we spent weeks collecting moths in the mountains. One night, when we turned on our lights, we gathered over 2,000 different species in one area, which was twice as many as I had learned about during my childhood. The task of identifying each one felt daunting and eventually, I gave up.

I traded the warm, equatorial regions for the frigid Canadian Arctic and shifted my attention from studying moths to studying microcrustaceans, a significantly less varied group. However, my natural inclination to classify and identify them remained unchanged.

Paul Hebert displays some of his moth samples in casesView image in fullscreen

After twenty years, I found myself in a grocery store and a thought began to form in my head as I strolled through the aisles: what if a specific part of DNA could be utilized to distinguish between different species? The barcodes on supermarket products only consisted of thirteen lines, yet they were able to identify everything in my surroundings. What if we could also use this method to identify plants, animals, and fungi?

After my missions in New Guinea, advancements in research techniques had greatly expanded our knowledge of the fundamental components of life on Earth. This motivated me to shift my focus in research. The Human Genome Project was underway to decode our DNA, and other researchers were using similar techniques on animals. Meanwhile, some scientists were proposing ways to differentiate species based on specific sections of genetic code. I had also begun to develop my own theory.

In order to experiment with my theory, I revisited the tools I used in my youth during the summer of 2001. Despite being in my mid-50s at the time, I set up a strong UV light and a white sheet in my backyard in Guelph, Ontario and began collecting the same moths I had encountered in my youth. This time, each moth I collected had to sacrifice a leg for scientific testing. My belief was that a single part of a highly adaptable gene found in most animals – cytochrome c oxidase 1, also known as COI – could be utilized to distinguish between different species.

At the conclusion of the summer, I had amassed approximately 200 types of moths, including rosy maple moths, hog sphinx moths, and tiger moths. These were all familiar species to me. Utilizing their legs, we employed the PCR method created by Kary Mullis to narrow down their COI segment for sequencing. Each genetic code was then entered into an excel spreadsheet individually. Gradually, it became evident that each moth could be classified based on a small portion of their genetic makeup. The initial test of DNA barcoding was a complete success.

Paul Hebert holds a UV light up to a large white sheet to attract moths in his back yardView image in fullscreen

I published the study in early 2003, which claimed to have found a dependable, affordable, and available method for identifying the numerous animal species yet to be discovered. Initially, there were skeptics who doubted its effectiveness for all types of animals, but other researchers have since tested and proven its success for the majority of animal species.

Currently, I am convinced that DNA barcoding presents the opportunity for humans to fully uncover the vast diversity of life on our planet. While the general consensus is that there are 8.7 million species coexisting with us, I personally believe that this number is a vast understatement, with the actual number likely falling somewhere between 20 million and 40 million. Since its inception in my own backyard, this method has proven incredibly useful for conservationists in their efforts to combat illegal wildlife trafficking and track the effects of mining on biodiversity. I have faith that in the future, it will be integrated into a comprehensive biosphere monitoring system, akin to how we currently monitor weather patterns.

According to Patrick Greenfield’s account

  • Paul Hebert serves as the Chief Executive Officer of the Centre for Biodiversity Genomics at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. He is also the scientific leader of the International Barcode of Life.

Source: theguardian.com