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Tolypeutes matacus, the southern three-banded armadillo of South America, can close its shell in a tight ball. Like all creatures, it has a bar code represented by four colors—one for each of the DNA bases (G, T, C, and A).
Bar coding has spread throughout the animal kingdom and even to plants and fungi. With a seal of approval from the United Nations, which has declared 2010 the International Year of Biodiversity, researchers in 25 countries are now aiming to bar code 500,000 species—of the 1.7 million already named on Earth—by 2015. “I’m convinced this approach is scalable to the planet,” says Hebert. “Any species humans encounter frequently will be bar coded by 2025.”

Some biologists dislike that grand plan; they worry that bar coding, which is best at identifying species that have already been described, will steal scarce research dollars from the more valuable work of describing unnamed species. Hebert sees the technique as popularizing biodiversity at a time when it is vanishing fast. People are now sending him specimens from their backyard to identify, but within ten years, he thinks, the technology will follow the path of GPS: Someone will invent a handheld DNA bar coder. “I can imagine every kid getting one of these in his or her Christmas stocking,” Hebert says. When those kids grow into postdocs, they’ll be better equipped to plunge into the wilds of New Guinea and sort out the moths. —Robert Kunzig

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