Conservation news

Bold project hopes to DNA barcode every species in Costa Rica

  • A new project, BioAlfa, proposes to use DNA barcoding to identify Costa Rica’s million- plus species.
  • BioAlfa argues that public availability of its barcoding will revolutionize how Costa Rica values its biodiversity.
  • The project already has government approval and some seed funding. But it needs a total of $100 million for full implementation.

Let’s be honest: many conservationists may start their careers with big ambitions. But as they, and their careers, age, those ambitions — especially in light of the Anthropocene — understandably shrink. Saving one forest or one species begins to look like a large enough legacy — and for many it is. Not for Daniel Janzen and Winifred Hallwachs. As they’ve aged, and their careers with them, their ambitions have grown.

Janzen and Hallwachs are now in the midst of kicking off something no one has gotten remotely close to since Carl Linnaeus began the systematic describing of species in the mid-1700s. In a project they call BioAlfa, they will attempt to identify every single species in a nation. And not a temperate, low-biodiversity nation, but a life-teeming, bio-rich, jungle country: Costa Rica.

Such a wild endeavor is only imaginable because of advances in gene technology. Now, Janzen and Hallwachs argue, all they need is funding, resources, and human power to begin to know every species in the Central American nation, from dragonflies to fungi, from caterpillars to lichen.

BioAlfa has chosen the beautiful machaca (Fulgora laternaria) for its logo, a type of planthopper. Photo courtesy of Daniel Janzen.

“No tropical country even begins to understand what is in its remaining wild areas, be they formal national parks … or wild for other reasons,” Janzen wrote to me, noting that BioAlfa is short for BioAlfabetizado, which in English means “to be bioliterate.”

Janzen, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Pennsylvania, and his partner, Hallwachs, a tropical ecologist, are well-known for their work in helping to establish and innovatively restore the Área de Conservación Guanacaste (ACG) in Costa Rica. But now they intend to take proof of concepts they established there, including massive taxonomic efforts, and apply them across the entire nation.

“When Costa Rica comes to begin to seriously know its one million-plus multicellular species — who they are, what they do, where they are, how to find them when wanted, and put them public on the web — it will be the first tropical country to be becoming seriously bioliterate,” Janzen writes, adding, “ALL of this is a public service, like teaching children to read in first grade and opening the library wide.”

Scientists around the world have over the past 270 years described around 2 million species in total. Janzen believes the small country of Costa Rica, only about twice the size of New Hampshire, houses more than a million multicellular species. And he believes with just a decade of effort, we could come to know the vast majority and provide that information online to the public. To this end, Janzen and Hallwachs have secured an agreement with the president of Costa Rica, Carlos Alvarado, making BioAlfa of “national importance” and ensuring that all DNA barcoding results would be put in the public domain.

A male morpho butterfly (Morpho amathonte) spreads its wings for a first flight in ACG. Photo courtesy of Daniel Janzen/ACG.

“A step that no other tropical country has taken for its biodiversity,” Janzen says.

So, how would they do it? How would they identify all those hundreds of thousands of species that have managed to elude scientists for nearly 300 years?

The answer: rapid genetic barcoding.

The barcode potential

Here’s how it works: scientists, field workers — really anyone with an interest and know-how — collect species in Costa Rica. These specimens are then DNA barcoded: instead of reading the full strand, the experts read a very short strand in an area, already identified, that differentiates one species from another. Essentially, this delivers a genetic “name” for the species that can be put in a database.

“[DNA barcoding] tells you that there are six species of giraffes, three species of orcas, two species of African elephants, and that Apanteles leucostigmus is in fact 39 species of specialists that have been dumped into one generalist name for 113 years,” Janzen says. “It tells you what species of mosquito just bit you and what kind of disease it was carrying in its saliva or blood.  It tells you that ‘red snapper’ in the London fish market is 22 species of fish, and it tells you that the white tuna sushi you paid $100 for in a New York restaurant is in fact factory-farmed tilapia.”

Janzen and Hallwachs have already barcoded around half a million specimens representing some 50,000 species since the mid-2000s with the Centre for Biodiversity Genomics (CBG), a program at the University of Guelph in Canada. They continue to send their group’s specimens to the CBG for barcoding, and the data is stored in the Barcode of Life DataSystem, or BOLD.

Left: the President of Costa Rica, Carlos Alvarado, signing the decree in the Consejo Nacional that makes BioAlfa of National Importance and that the DNA barcode will be in the public domain. Right: Alvardo on the cover of Time Magazine. Photo by: Alejandro Masis, the Director of Area de Conservacion Guanacaste.

But BioAlfa would require a considerable increase in the number of specimens collected and tested in Costa Rica. Over 10 years, the program hopes to barcode millions of individuals. Janzen says he believes new technology would make that easier.

Janzen says he expects there will soon be “a personal, dirt cheap, reusable, non-reagent pocket barcorder.” He says such a product is “in heavy development now” by several companies. This personal barcorder could be connected to Wi-Fi and identify the species in potentially real time. One day, such barcorders could be in the pockets of Costa Rica’s 5 million people.

With 10 years of intensive collecting and barcoding, Janzen says he expects they would be able to identify around 80-90% of the species found in the country.

“Every species is fair game, but as in any sampling program, there is a long tail of effort that is never finished,” he says.

Still, cataloging that many of Costa Rica’s species — most of them arthropods (insects and arachnids), fungi and nematodes — would entail an achievement that no country has even gotten close to. The effort would be a part of BIOSCAN, a global project by the International Barcode of Life, which is seeking to significantly boost DNA barcoding of life across the planet, but nowhere near the depth Janzen is considering.

And, Janzen says, it would change Costa Rica’s citizens forever.

Life uncovered

Uncovering the million-plus species in Costa Rica — knowing “who” they are, where they are, how common or uncommon they area, and what other species they interact with — will transform how Costa Rica views its wild ecosystems, according to Janzen.

“Certainly, no more than 10% of Costa Rica’s biodiversity has ever been collected or touched (other than destructively),” Janzen writes.

A new species of nematode emerges from a new species of caterpillar in ACG. BioAlfa plans to identify countless species like this. Photo courtesy of: Daniel Janzen/ACG.

The knowledge will begin with simply untangling the many different life forms in the country, and then beginning to see wider connections and novel possibilities.

“BioAlfa will democratize biodiversity, the real treasure of Costa Rica,” says Frank Joyce, the director of the University of California’s Education Abroad Program (EAP) in Costa Rica, who’s worked with Janzen and Hallwachs for decades. “Wild nature and humanity will both benefit from the BioAlfa process and BioAlfa products. Imagine having a giant warehouse with a million different health-related items. Of what value are these items if we don’t know what is there or how to find them?”

Janzen says he envisions such knowledge being employed across nearly all sectors of Costa Rica: health and pharmaceuticals, education, agriculture, research, tourism, pollination and pest control, and regulatory support.

“The list goes on to touch essentially all human activities,” he says, adding “[it’s] like asking a five-year-old to tell you about the ‘uses’ of being literate.”

In the end, Janzen says, Costa Ricans will be able to find new and better ways to use their biodiversity wealth without destroying it.

Beyond Costa Rica

Marilyn Gonzalez Herrera first heard of BioAlfa in Norway this summer, attending the 8th International Barcode of Life Conference. A genetic researcher at the Alexander von Humboldt Biological Resources Research Institute in Bogotá, Colombia, she was immediately intrigued.

“I loved the idea of knowledge democratized in practice,” she says. Colombia is one of the world’s most biodiverse nations; 22 times larger than Costa Rica, it’s biodiversity may only be rivaled by Brazil the world over.

After the meeting in Norway, things moved quickly. Janzen and Hallwachs traveled to Colombia in October for further discussions. Then, in February, a number of Colombian researchers and government officials visited Janzen and Hallwachs at ACG in Costa Rica to see their work firsthand.

Parataxonomist, Caroline Cano, holds up a massive fungi in 1996. This species has never been identified or described. Fungi are some of the least described or studied biological families in the world. Photo courtesy of Daniel Janzen/ACG.

“It was inspiring to see BioAlfa in practice and experience the result of decades of effort building capacity, building knowledge, and connecting people to biodiversity,” Gonzalez Herrera says.

Arguably, one of the most important aspects of BioAlfa is that it really is a pilot project: if it works, it could be easily replicated in other tropical countries. And, if its proponents are right, it could essentially change how we value, monitor and understand the millions of species that share the planet with us.

“A program like BioAlfa is an opportunity to reconnect local actors to their surrounding biodiversity and promoting in it an alternative source of living,” Gonzalez Herrera says, pointing to rapidly rising deforestation rates in Colombia. She says while there are many reasons for the destruction, one of the “major” ones is a “lack of value given to biodiversity.”

“If we want to guarantee our coexistence with biodiversity we need to link all sectors of the society to it and BioAlfa puts this in practice,” she adds.

Gonzalez Herrera says Colombia is taking the idea seriously, looking at implementing pilot projects “where we can link local communities with local enterprises, government institutions, and regional academic support.”

Janzen says he’s now looking to raise kick-starting money for projects in Colombia as well as Costa Rica.

“The overall goal is, of course, to infect Colombia with the BioAlfa virus … Obviously our hope is that the BioAlfa concept will spread south-south through the biodiverse tropics for their own good, rather than something imposed top down by the industrialized north,” he adds.

A library of life

The ultimate goal, using Janzen’s metaphor, is to create a library of life. Like libraries, the knowledge will be free and publicly available. Janzen says he believes this will create a revolution in how Costa Rica, already known as one of the “greenest” countries on Earth, will value its bio wealth.

“What this really boils down to is, instead of putting a massive biodiversity resource into a National Park Package and locking it up under a gun and a gold badge, it means putting wild biodiversity into the community just as we put reading and writing into the community,” he says.

Rural students visiting ACG use their personal phones to photograph a snake. Photo courtesy of Daniel Janzen.

In many ways, BioAlfa has already begun. Janzen has been case-testing it in ACG for the last 35 years, and using DNA barcoding for nearly 20. Janzen and Hallwachs have already secured partnerships with the Costa Rican government and have opened a BioAlfa headquarters in the capital, San José, with around $5 million already allocated or promised.

But the project still requires considerable funding: Janzen estimates about $100 million in total — half of that for the barcoding and basic resources such as vehicles and paid labor, with a quarter for a permanent endowment and the last quarter for small-scale grants to apply the knowledge that’s been discovered.

“BioAlfa does not have to get a $100 million cheque to start, but it has to know that the funds will steadily appear as the years roll by,” Janzen says of the future.

Imagine this: one day a child in rural Costa Rica finds a dead caterpillar. Pulling off a leg, they place it in their portable DNA barcorder. A minute later, the species’ name is revealed by a global database. The child then looks up the insect’s range, conservation status, and habitat requirements; they see an image of what the caterpillar will look like after its metamorphosis into a moth. Their record, collected on a little farm in the hilly forests of Costa Rica, is added to the database, providing a new pinpoint for this species, informing future understanding — and writing another sentence in the million-plus books of the library of Costa Rican life.

This column is part of Jeremy Hance’s ongoing series at Mongabay, Saving Life on Earth: Words on the Wild, view them all here.