Magazine article Natural History

Killer App

Magazine article Natural History

Killer App

Article excerpt

Kenneth M. Cameron ("Bar Coding for Botany," page 52) imagines that one day soon. "global flora scanners" will catch bad guys who smuggle endangered plants across international borders. My vision is more benign: You've taken the day off to hike the woods in the early spring. Wet snow still tills the forest with cool, damp air, but the sun is bright, and up ahead, at a break in the canopy, a blossom is bravely forcing the new season.The flower is unfamiliar.

You unclip your handheld GFS unit from your belt. Stoop. Snip. You take a tiny bite of leaf with the hole punch, press "ID" on the keypad, and wait for the Hypernet response. Sure enough, the blossom is a rare, endangered blue-eyed Mary (Collinsia verna); no one has recorded the flower in these woods for twenty years. Immoderately pleased by your sharp eyes and good luck, you press "Record"; the system clock marks the time and date, the GPS module remembers the location, and the flower is filed m your personal database. Before you move on. you take a digital photograph of the flower, and dictate a few remarks into the digital recorder.

Behind this new technological magic is one of the most exciting biological projects since the sequencing of the human genome. The project, known as DNA bar coding, is an international effort to create a universal genetic database of life by sequencing short, species-specific regions of DNA from every living species on Earth. Among botanists, Cameron says, the goal is to identify two or perhaps three genes that occur in all plants, yet in combination are distinctive enough from species to species to serve as reliable species markers. …

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