22 August 2008

Barcoding blogger's daughter, 19, identifies mislabeled sushi with DNA

DNA barcoding is sometimes greeted with skepticism not only by professional taxonomists and systematists, but also by a broader community of scholars with concerns that barcoding advocates' claim that it will "democratise taxonomy" are over-inflated.

Today in the New York Times there is a story that, in its small way, lends support to the barcoding camp. Two New York teenagers, one the daughter of Mark Stoeckle, a researcher at Rockefeller University who writes the Barcode of Life Blog, have used DNA barcoding to test whether fish in their favourite sushi restaurants is what it says it is on the menu. From the NYT story:
They found that one-fourth of the fish samples with identifiable DNA were mislabeled. A piece of sushi sold as the luxury treat white tuna turned out to be Mozambique tilapia, a much cheaper fish that is often raised by farming. Roe supposedly from flying fish was actually from smelt. Seven of nine samples that were called red snapper were mislabeled, and they turned out to be anything from Atlantic cod to Acadian redfish, an endangered species.

What may be most impressive about the experiment is the ease with which the students accomplished it. Although the testing technique is at the forefront of research, the fact that anyone can take advantage of it by sending samples off to a laboratory meant the kind of investigative tools once restricted to Ph.D.’s and crime labs can move into the hands of curious diners and amateur scientists everywhere.
Best of all is that the two girls, neither of whom intends to major in science at university, have contributed, as amateurs, to the development and use of DNA barcoding. This is, I hope, a harbinger of things to come, when droves of amateur scientists contribute to a truly public effort to identify and conserve the dwindling diversity of life:
The students worked under the tutelage of Jesse H. Ausubel of Rockefeller University, a champion of the DNA bar coding technique. As for Ms. Strauss and Ms. Stoeckle, Dr. Ausubel said they “have contributed to global science” by adding to the database, built on a model similar to that of Wikipedia, in which people around the world can contribute.

In a way, Dr. Ausubel said, their experiment is a return to an earlier era of scientific inquiry. “Three hundred years ago, science was less professionalized,” he said, and contributions were made by interested amateurs. “Perhaps the wheel is turning again where more people can participate.”
Read the full story at the New York Times.

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