Utopian lepidoptery

This month’s issue of Wired reports on DNA barcoding, with extensive interviews of barcoding masterminds Dan Janzen and Paul Hebert. In spite of myself, I’m charmed by the article’s description of Janzen as a “utopian lepidopterist.”

Photo by fabbio.

I’ve posted about one recent Janzen-Hebert barcoding paper, and about a subsequently-released study that suggests a major problem for the usefulness of the preferred “barcode” gene, COI. I’d say the Wired coverage is actually pretty OK for a popular treatment – it acknowledges criticism of barcoding, even though, in typical Wired fashion, the piece is obviously most interested in the whiz-bang ideas like a “species tricorder” handheld device for field I.D. of organisms. Good geek that I am, I would have liked to see more discussion of the actual technical issues – what about the difficulties of using mitochondrial DNA for plant I.D.?

Update: No one is proposing using mitochondrial DNA for barcoding plants. Which is good, because it would be silly – DNA in the plant mitochondrion mutates extremely slowly, so it doesn’t build up much difference between closely-related species. Instead, Kress and coauthors proposed using both a nuclear gene and a segment of chloroplast DNA in a 2005 paper.