Ask me what I want to be invented in my life time, and my answer is usually consistent. Remember Star Trek’s tricorder? Ever played a video game where you, as the player, could “scan” organisms in the world and know immediately what they are?
One thing citizen science has revealed, more than ever, is how much we don’t know. Almost every insect sighting is a new data point. There are new and undescribed species all around us, even flourishing in our backyards. But at the same time, the world is rapidly changing, and species are disappearing, some which we may have not even known about. If LA disappears, people may lament the lost bird colonies, and mammals, but what about the tens of thousands of still unknown flies, wasps, beetles, and micro-life? Ordinarily we would wait for specialists to rise up, say in crickets, to compare specimens and work out the species, where they are found, and their biology. But there are still many groups without specialists, and even those with specialists are often slow progressing. The research in Stenopelmatus has taken more than a decade, and the researchers are still not nearly done!
For citizen scientists to really go all-out, we’d be collecting specimens and DNA on what we find. At the moment most of us can only really do “sight records”, which only works for species that can be confirmed visually. For many groups, or even ages (e.g. plants with no flowers), this is not possible. But DNA barcoding is very expensive, requires taking a specimen out of its environment, and not feasible for even some seasoned researchers.
What we need is a handheld device, that lets us identify DNA, and barcode it. At the least, it will let us see what species is in front of us. At the most, it can store that DNA barcode and add it to a database of barcodes, which are extremely important for taxonomy and classification. Visual sightings have already helped researchers and scientists enough – what if we could provide DNA data as well?
I thought this was just an optimistic dream for a while but recently I was shown this tech, apparently first worked on in 2012: https://nanoporetech.com/products/minion
It describes a device that is able to barcode DNA within a much more feasible time. A start, but we need something more efficient I suppose. What does everyone think about this? Having a handheld DNA scanner?
The only downsides seem to be psychological – A. it would “ruin” the fun of identifying species manually or B. it would make life “too easy”. But I think at this point you have to consider that right now, we are probably in the most rapidly changing environment the world has seen in modern human history. We can’t afford to be ignoring new species, or even known species, at the tip of a hat. Plus, if you can identify things quicker, now you can spend more time looking for more neat stuff!
Cheers to iNat having a “upload DNA barcode” feature in the (hopefully near) future…