Aug 29, 2014 I Tom Head

New Crowdsourced DNA Database May Change Biology Forever

New technology is fickle. I thought solar roadways and thorium cars sounded fantastic until I researched them, and it’s possible that LifeScanner’s crowdsourced DNA collection app/kit will fall into the same category. But right now, LifeScanner is off to a promising start


The basic principle behind LifeScanner, at the moment, isn’t that impressive: you collect biomaterials from an animal species, you send them off in test tubes to a lab in Ontario, at which point they match those samples up with the International Barcode of Life’s simplified DNA marker directory and tell you what creature you’ve sampled. It’s basically a more streamlined, less species-specific answer to DNA-based dog breed identification services. 

But the long-term prospects for the program are considerable; through the use of DNA barcoding and smartphone peripherals, it will soon be possible to test abridged DNA on a species-taxonomy level using a portable device that plugs into your phone. This means that if you encounter a clump of unfamiliar hair (or flesh, or poop, or whatever) in the woods, a device you can plug into your phone can tell you whether it belongs to a rabbit, a deer, or a completely new species. And if it does belong to a completely new species, further testing might be able to tell you what general kind of species it is.

It’s a great idea. As we’ve learned from past great ideas, execution is everything—but DNA barcoding, portable DNA testing, and crowdsourced DNA testing are clearly the way of the future. Soon, zoology (and cryptozoology) will belong to everybody who can afford a smartphone—and if that does for biology what Wikipedia did to reference content, science will never be the same.

Tom Head

Tom Head is an author or coauthor of 29 nonfiction books, columnist, scriptwriter, research paralegal, occasional hellraiser, and proud Jackson native. His book Possessions and Exorcisms (Fact or Fiction?) covers the recent demand for exorcists over the past 30 years and demonic possession.

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