Professor Paul Hebert wants to bar-code DNA of all species

Professor Paul Hebert from the University of Guelph wants to genetically index every multi-cellular species on the planet.
A universal DNA bar-coding project could lead to genetic early-warning systems that trigger an alert when invasive species like zebra mussels appear in an ecosystem. (Carol Kaliff/The News-Times/AP)

Professor Paul Hebert has been a busy man, and if everything goes well he will continue to be very busy for a long time. He's proposing a DNA project that could last decades. Hebert is a biology researcher and professor at the University of Guelph, attempting to bar-code the DNA of every living organism on the planet. 

Hebert estimates there could be anywhere from 10 to 20 million species in the world, and as many as 5,000 in your own backyard. 

DNA bar-coding is a simplified system that can allow the easy identification of any living organism through a sample of its DNA. 

In the first five years of his project, begun in 2010, Hebert and his team have reached their goal of coding 500,000 species. The success of that mission has led Hebert to propose a new mandate of obtaining the genetic information of every living thing on earth.

Why barcoding matters

According to Hebert, the implication of his work will lead to a more complete understand of life on earth and its origins.

"One of the motivations is the fact that our species is very curious, we like to know about the world that we live in and the world around us. So humanity spends billions of dollars every year to advance the knowledge of our world." 

He added, "it's going to expand our understanding of the world, there is a noble motivation of contributing to human knowledge and to answer a question that has remained unanswered for a very long time." 

Hebert is worried that extinction of species could result in missing pieces to the puzzle of life on earth. "Our work has a time urgency to it, because much of life on this planet is in peril, especially in the tropics, there is every reason to believe that one in five species on our planet could be gone by the year 2100 and with that will go, what I like to call, the Books of Life."

"Projects like ours will lead to the protection of DNA extracts of all of the species on our planet, we can read the Books of Life at our leisure, we won't be burning them without reading them, which is happening today," he told CBC Radio's The Morning Edition in Kitchener-Waterloo.

Hebert points out there's a practical, pragmatic use for his information. Governments have paid billions of dollars to stop invasive species like zebra muscles and the emerald ash borer. According to Hebert, DNA bar-coding could help track the movement of invasive species and stop their spread. "We envision tracking stations just like we have weather stations that warn when a thunderstorm is coming. We will get an early warning system that a beetle has arrived in Windsor and we need to take action to eradicate it." 

Funding search

The first part of Hebert's new project is to raise $2.5 billion dollars needed to fund what he expects to be a 25-year endeavour. Hebert and the University of Guelph are hosting a conference this week with more than 500 scientists from more than 50 countries to discuss the first steps of the new mission. 

However, that in itself is a challenge: Hebert expects it will take five to 10 years before the Planetary Biodiversity Mission will secure the funding to get off the ground. ​


  • An earlier version of this story contained a typographical error and incorrectly named the University of Guelph professor involved in the DNA barcode project as Paul Henert. In fact, his name is Paul Hebert.
    Aug 17, 2015 7:36 PM ET