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An international consortium attempting to develop a new method for identifying animal and plant species says it wants more institutions from developing countries to join the effort.

The Consortium for the Barcode of Life, an initiative of the world's major natural history museums, universities and botanical gardens, is developing a system to identify plants and animals based on their individual genetic code.

The phrase 'barcode' comes from the computer-readable black-and-white parallel lines that are printed on product packaging. Each product type has an individual sequence of lines, which can be scanned onto computer databases by retailers who use the information to track the location, quantity and sales of their products.

The barcode consortium hopes to develop a similar system to identify and track species numbers. Because each species has a unique genetic code, it might be possible to rapidly identify them by analysing a short sequence of their DNA.

The consortium's members eventually hope to be able to identify species using a type of hand-held scanner — though they accept that the technology for this is some way off.

One-third of the consortium's 50 members are from developing countries, and at its first international conference at the UK Natural History Museum yesterday, many more joined up.

These included the University of Fort Hare in South Africa, the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka and the Indonesian Institute of Sciences.

David Schindel, the consortium's executive secretary, told SciDev.Net that he was in discussions with international organisations such as UNESCO, the Academy of Science for the Developing World (TWAS) and the Global Biodiversity Information Facility to find ways of further increasing developing countries' involvement in the initiative — to help it gain access to as many species as possible.

"Developing countries have a critical role to play because it is they who bring the wealth [of biodiversity] to the table," says Schindel. "The easy bit", he says, is to buy equipment to analyse gene sequences. "It is harder to build partnerships that involve developed and developing countries, which is what we aim to do."

Daniel Okeyo, executive dean of science and technology at the University of Fort Hare, told the meeting that institutions from developing countries should join the consortium as equal partners, and not just be regarded as places to collect specimens from. "Let us join in with you instead of you doing all the driving," he said.

Jayanthi Edirisinghe, professor of zoology at the University of Peradeniya, said that the idea of a DNA-based identification system for species had many attractions for developing countries. One of these, she said, was its potential to attract more students to the study of taxonomy, which is otherwise considered a dry and unappealing subject.

Several delegates (from both developed and developing countries) said that taxonomy education was in crisis, partly because students are no longer prepared to put in the effort to learn the existing classification system for plants and animals.

The prospect of introducing new technology to taxonomy, said Edirisinghe, could help to revive interest in careers in the field.

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