I work at the intersection of research, education, and outreach to adapt DNA-assisted species identification ("DNA barcoding") for use in projects involving public participation in scientific research (citizen science). My aim is to help increase humanity's capacity to understand and manage how environmental change (e.g. climate change and habitat degradation) affects the diversity of living organisms upon which human society utterly relies.
Today, the difficulty of identifying organisms limits both research (e.g. systematics, ecology, and evolution) and its applications (e.g. medicine, agriculture, and conservation). This difficulty is compounded by the scarcity of global taxonomic expertise called "the taxonomic impediment" by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. Projects that engage "citizen scientists" in the identification of biological specimens, like "bioblitzes", hold promise for overcoming the taxonomic impediment while simultaneously improving the public understanding of science. These projects are, however, limited by the amount of training and supervision required for participants to correctly identify species.
DNA barcoding can help extend taxonomic expertise to empower researchers and citizen scientists alike to identify organisms faster and more accurately. DNA barcoding involves sequencing ("reading" the sequence of) a short stretch of a specimen’s DNA (part of the mitochondrial CO1 gene from animals, or parts of chloroplast genes rbcL and matK from plants) from a biological specimen. This query sequence is then compared to a reference library of CO1 or matK and rbcL sequences (“DNA barcodes”) linked to voucher specimens that have been identified by professional taxonomic specialists. The outcome is a species-level name for the query specimen, inferred solely from its DNA.
If used to validate specimen identifications made by citizen scientists, DNA barcoding could enable transformative increases in the scope and scale at which biodiversity science is done. Large numbers of widely dispersed citizen scientists observing and collecting specimens, their identifications later validated through DNA barcoding, could enable larger-scale, more complex research on how environmental change (e.g. climate change and habitat degradation) affects biodiversity and increase humanity’s capacity to understand, monitor and manage biodiversity in a rapidly changing world.
Supported by a recent National Science Foundation award (DRL-1223210), I am working with investigators from Acadia National Park and the Schoodic Education and Research Center to 1) pilot DNA-assisted specimen identification in citizen science and 2) generate knowledge and resources for a planned region-wide citizen science initiative called "BioTrails". BioTrails will take advantage of – and return benefit to – the rich natural, scientific and cultural landscapes of the Acadia region. Once implemented, BioTrails will facilitate the participation of some of the 2.5 million visitors to the Acadia region, primarily adults, to participate in a range of citizen science projects. These projects would feature field research activities organized around hiking, biking and sea-kayaking trails. In addition to being popular recreational destinations, these trails would function as stable, long-term research transects for collecting observations, specimens and other data to address current ecological research questions. The BioTrails model will have the potential for expansion to other projects in Acadia National Park, other national parks and long-distance trails such as the Appalachian Trail.