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Biodiversity on display in San Diego

'Art of DNA Barcoding' exhibit runs through Feb. 18

Los Angeles and its surrounding suburbs are packed with homo sapiens, but more than 2,000 miles south lies a similarly-sized area that's jammed with 2.5 percent of the world's species.

Over the past few decades, top biodiversity thinker Daniel Janzen has developed one of the world’s most successful tropical forest reserves, called Área de Conservación Guanacaste, in northwestern Costa Rica.

Janzen coined the “biodiversity development” concept of training local citizens as parataxonomists to complete inventories based on DNA barcoding techniques.

The team has slowly tracked a plethora of species that walk, fly and swim on the reserve.

“It’s packing an enormous package of biodiversity into a tiny country,” he said. “Each one of those species is a crop ... harvesting from it without trashing it."

The next piece of the puzzle is finding a way to create a pocket-sized "Google" device for looking up each species.

Janzen made a rare pit stop in San Diego last month to discuss an innovative exhibition at the San Diego Natural History Museum called "BOLD: The Art of DNA Barcoding." The exhibit runs through Feb. 18.

BOLD shares the acronym of Barcode of Life Datasystems, the Canadian repository for the International Barcode of Life project, for which Janzen is a passionate proponent and contributor.

The genomics initiative applies DNA barcoding technology to build a global library for species identification.

There are currently 500,000 species tracked in the system, and each is assigned a barcode.

He wants to condense that data into a searchable directory, accessed by a gadget that scans the tissue of the organism.

His biodiversity conservation work scored him the 1997 Kyoto Prize, or Japan's highest private award for global achievement. The Kyoto Symposium Organization holds an annual symposium in San Diego to celebrate the past year's winners.

Thanks to the partnership with the organization, Kyocera, and the Consul of Canada in San Diego, Janzen spoke at a private 70-person reception at the Kyocera Guest House in La Jolla.

He challenged the tech-savvy biotech leaders in the room to create an inexpensive pocket device to allow his parataxonomists in Costa Rica, or people anywhere, to measure biodiversity in real time.

“Everyone at some point in their life needs to know which species they just ate or got stung by or squashed on their skin. Or what plant you fed your dog," he said.

The real challenge is making a cheap and reusable gadget that fits in your back pocket. The heavy version that exists today costs $400,000 and sits a large tabletop.

"We're just scratching the surface," he said, referring to the surplus of species that have yet to be tracked.

The collection process is tedious. The subtle differences which distinguish one species from another are invisible to the eye, showing a slide with butterflies that almost look identical. Many people are unaware there are six species of giraffe, he notes.

If a species found in the world is not already registered into the library, the founder can take a picture of it, map where they are located and send off a sample to be recorded.

“If you’re a guy in Malaysia whose daughter just got bitten by a mosquito, you’d want to know if it’s a species that carried malaria,” he said.

After waving the marker across the bite, a center in southeast Asia could report that it was a harmless mosquito that doesn't carry disease or dispel the news that the child is located at the center of an epidemic.

“Suddenly we have a way communicating all kinds of things,” he said.

Barcoder users can go into a sushi restaurant in New York City, for example, and find out a $45 piece of white tuna is actually tilapia, he said. He cited a recent study at a London fish market, where only four out of 22 samples of fish labeled as red snapper were actually red snapper.

In January, he won the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award for his pioneering work in tropical ecology and the conservation of tropical ecosystems.

The art in the exhibit is by Joseph Rossano, whose interactive sculpture series interprets the work of innovative biodiversity scientists.

The exhibit includes sculptured and silvered polyurethane butterflies and Moorea reef fish and lacquered sea life abstractions, according to the museum's website.

Janzen's caterpillar photographs from the conservation complement Rossano's butterflies and other specimens, said the site.

The conservation has a $5 million annual operating budget, and funding comes from a mix of private donors, non-governmental organizations and universities.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site is being used as a reserve model around the world.

A portion of its budget is devoted to education. Janzen calls the parataxonomists' children in Costa Rica the "next generation" of professors and commercial CEOs.

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