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

The taxonomic community is familiar with change, upheaval and debate, often provoked by new ideas about classificatory methods and more often than not, enabled by the development of new technologies (Hull 1988). Over the last decade, however, it is perhaps fair to say that the introduction of high throughput sequencing technologies, together with PCR technology, both refined during parallel developments in genomics, have provided the potential to transform taxonomy as we know it. In the process this potential revolution has provoked heated and fascinating debate within the community and beyond

So what has the introduction of new technologies provided for taxonomy? Since the 1980s, the experimentation with a range of molecular techniques for both investigating phylogenetic relationships and species identification has intensified. Many scientists now argue that these provide, if not an improved, a complementary range of methods to the morphological approaches more traditionally used. 

The latest in a long string of molecular developments in taxonomy is the use of DNA barcoding techniques for species identification.  Thesetechniques use a small fragment of DNA, a 'DNA barcode' to identify living organisms.

More information on DNA barcoding»

This flurry of technological development can be seen however to have occurred hand in hand with a growth in public and policy interest in biodiversity. Indeed, since the signing by over 150 countries of the Global Convention of Biodiversity in Rio in 1992, both taxonomy and biodiversity have been placed firmly and clearly on the (public) policy map. A growing public, scientific and policy awareness of biodiversity loss and the urgent need to reliably and rapidly inventorize biodiversity presence as a prerequisite for its protection, have forced a rethinking of the methods for producing and sharing taxonomic knowledge.

In many circles, this way of thinking about ways of democratising access to the fruits of taxonomic work and about biodiversity itself, has become referred to as the biodiversity commons. We therefore perceive taxonomic innovation to be occurring not only in the laboratory but in society as well, as ever-wider communities across the globe become enrolled in the project of knowing the planet's biodiversity. As such, we can say that such kinds of innovation are deeply social and political by nature.

Clearly, this coming together of different kinds of technological, social and political innovation has both resulted in but also been enabled by the joining of forces of the taxonomic and bioinformatics communities to find new digital ways to ensure global access to the results of taxonomic and biodiversity research. These developments are gradually taking shape and are being laid out on a global playing field and as such not only is access to information a burning issue, but so is access to innovatory power and technological know-how.

One example of an innovatory 'work bench' designed to both store and analyse barcode sequences is BOLD, the Barcode of Life Data Systems.

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At present, the how and where of resource distribution on a global scale remains to establish itself. The stakes are high of course, as new research agendas are set, human, technological and financial resources allocated and sometimes new and unanticipated applications of taxonomic techniques and information burgeon. Indeed, Dr Paul Hebert, one of today’s leading champions of DNA barcoding for species identification has characterised contemporary research in taxonomy as ‘an enterprise that promises to remake our relationship with life’. The expectations could hardly be greater and not surprisingly new questions and reflections about taxonomic and biodiversity futures are already circulating around scientific, policy and public communities.

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