Wrestling with biodiversity

Wrestling with biodiversity

The inventor of DNA barcoding, Paul Hebert, leads the charge for an international effort to understand the earth's biodiversity
September 1, 2007
“Wrestling” is a word Paul Hebert often uses. He is no professional fighter but, even in his seemingly ‘peaceful’ field of research of molecular biodiversity, there are ongoing battles. His story goes to show the old adage that victory is sweeter after the taste of defeat.

Hebert, a Canada Research Chair in Molecular Biodiversity, suffered his first setback when he was just four years old. Having captured a bumblebee in a jar, he wanted to hurry home and show his mom, but he tripped and cut open his left hand. “ I was so proud of my capture; I was fascinated by insects and all small living creatures,” says the now 60-year-old scientist, wielding the two-inch scar on his hand. “ As a kid, I was attracted to very small things. And I never grew out of it,” he says with a laugh. The blood, the hospital, and later, the scar, didn’t put a damper on Hebert’s passion for biology.

Instead, he dedicated most of his life to the subject, and made it his lifelong mission to contribute to the understanding of the earth’s biodiversity. His biggest contribution would be his DNA barcoding, which makes it possible to envisage identifying and cataloguing all of earth’s species within a few decades. With an estimate of 10 million macroscopic species on earth, of which less than 10 percent are now known, this is no small endeavour.

But how did he go from catching bees to developing DNA barcodes? Born in Kingston, Ontario, Hebert showed promise early on, as he went directly to doctoral studies at Cambridge in England after completing his bachelor’s degree at Queen’s University. “ I wanted to study biodiversity through population genetics,” he explains, “ but Canada didn’t have a program in the field at the time.” During his years at Cambridge, he worked on breeding system evolution in freshwater life, but continued to collect Lepidoptera—butterflies and moths, in his spare time. As a post-doctoral fellow, he tackled tropical species of the same group. In his mid-20s, he received a grant from the Royal Society of Great Britain “ to do what I wanted in Australia and Papua New Guinea, which was rather nice,” he recounts. But it didn’t turn out at all the way he thought it would. Tropical species were far too diverse: “ They wrestled me to the ground! I had collected enough species to keep me occupied for the rest of my life. My head wasn’t big enough to deal with the diversity of species in these settings,” he admits humbly. “ I gave up my collection of tropical insects when I came back to Canada, and the idea of ever studying them again.”

Instead, Hebert focused his research on the much “ less diverse systems” of the Canadian North. “ I spent 20 years playing in the Arctic,” he says with a smile. But he remained frustrated by his inability to identify life around him. When new methods arose in the 1990’s that simplified both the recovery and sequencing of DNA, Hebert realized there was both hope and technology to satisfy his longtime quest, shared by so many, to get to know the living creatures of our planet. So, he set to work. Inspired by the simple bar-coding system used on food products, the Guelph University professor applied a similar approach to categorize species using a standardized segment of each species’ DNA. The targeted piece of DNA was chosen through a careful process to ensure it would deliver species identification.

Even after the inauguration of the International Barcode of Life Project—which gathered 75 scientists from around the world in June 2007—Hebert still faces critics for his invention. “ There are pockets of resistance,” he says. “ A few individuals have staked their belief that this approach cannot be effective.” Nevertheless, Hebert’s new method seems optimistically practical and has already attracted major support, despite the criticism. “ We see DNA barcoding as a way to energize the taxonomic system. It will hugely expedite the registration of life,” he affirms undeterred. He now seeks to continue his work by building a $150 million research biodiversity project based in the new Biodiversity Institute of Ontario, launched at the University of Guelph last May.