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DNA barcode finds four new bird species

The task of identifying Earth's estimated 10 million species has daunted biologists for centuries - fewer than two million have been named. Using a technique called DNA barcoding, researchers at Rockefeller University and two Canadian institutions have uncovered four new species of North American birds. The findings are reported in the September 28 issue of Public Library of Science (PLoS) Biology.

The result is an important step toward proving that the sequence of a short stretch of DNA -- a so-called DNA barcode -- can be used genetically to identify known species and to find new ones.

"A uniform system to use DNA to identify all plants and animals would allow many more people -- from environmental regulators to nature lovers -- to identify organisms," says Mark Y. Stoeckle, M.D., guest investigator in the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University.

"For humans, birds are probably the easiest species to identify. They're big, they're colored differently, and they sing different songs. Yet even in that easy to identify group, there are hidden species," says Stoeckle.

As the cost of DNA sequencing goes down, Stoeckle and other proponents of DNA barcoding envision developing a hand-held device that amateur naturalists and others could take outdoors for species identification.

"New species won't be determined by DNA analysis alone," says Stoeckle. "Morphology, behavior, and vocalization, for example, will still need to be accounted for in determining whether something is a species. But barcoding will enable rapid screening of large numbers of organisms and highlight those with novel barcodes that are likely to be new species."

Identifying Species by DNA

Taxonomists traditionally have classified organisms on the basis of their physical characteristics. They use DNA too, but current techniques are labor intensive and difficult to compare.

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