Taxonomy at a crossroads
Department of Sociology, County College South, Lancaster University, LA1 4YD, UK
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Contemporary Debates

The introduction of DNA barcoding techniques in 2003 has provoked controversy, uncertainty and new debates within the taxonomic community. Reactions to the innovation have been well documented and for a comprehensive list of barcoding related publications, Canadian Centre for DNA Barcoding's website». Whilst the content of this page cannot do justice to the depth and breadth of the complex debates concerning the potential benefits and disadvantages of using DNA barcoding, we have identified 4 main issues which continue to appear in the literature:

Good Science?

DNA barcoding as a concept and practice rests on the identification of one gene segment as a standard and precise species identifier for animals (Cytochrome Oxidase 1). In the case of plants, the potential of several gene segments as species identifiers, are currently being debated. Although barcoding advocates claim to have demonstrated that 'one gene works' (in the case of animals), agreement about the concept of such a 'barcode' has not been reached across the taxonomic community. Furthermore, the broader, philosophical questions and debates around the 'species concept' have also been affected and indeed enriched since the introduction of barcoding techniques for species identification. The research team are interested in how good taxonomic science is defined in a period where many taxonomic conventions are subject to innovation and change.

What's in a barcode?

Discussions around the potential of barcoding for taxonomy have been characterised by differences in opinion concerning the use of a barcode for species identification alone or for the discovery and delimitation of taxa. Whilst some members of the taxonomic community firmly state that DNA barcoding and DNA taxonomy are 2 quite different concepts, others believe that the separation is not quite so clear. The research team are interested in how the taxonomic sciences debate this issue, and how they will seek achieve closure on it.

How to 'read' a barcode:

A DNA barcode can be subject to many different kinds of analysis aided by the use of mathematical algorithms. One example of an ongoing discussion within the community is that of the merits of 'distance analysis' versus 'character based analysis'.
These and related debates about how to best use tools provided by bioinformatics to understand barcodes are vitally important for the development of barcoding. The research team are interested in which tools and techniques are selected by which members of the taxonomic community, and why.

Less resources for 'traditional' taxonomy?

Some critics of barcoding are worried about what they perceive to be the siphoning off of much needed funding for the development of high-tech and fashionable barcoding projects. Barcoding advocates, on the other hand, are of the opinion that the sources for barcoding funding would not naturally fund 'traditional' taxonomic projects. Moreover, they believe that the promotion of digitisable, DNA-based taxonomic techniques will provide a trickle down effect, thus bringing added value to the taxonomic community through supporting more traditional methods. The research team are interested in documenting the ways in which the funding of taxonomic research continues to change with the introduction of barcoding techniques and a growing interest in taxonomy from fields which previously were less interested in the products of taxonomic practice (such as forensics and public health).




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