A look at how Biologists use Dna Fingerprinting to Identify Animal Species

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"A look at how Biologists use Dna Fingerprinting to Identify Animal Species"
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DNA fingerprinting is, typically, a science relegated to humans - or so most people would believe. Found in criminal forensics shows like CSI, Dexter, Law & Order and Bones, DNA fingerprinting is, to the popular imagination, strictly used as a method of separating the good guys from the bad.

Yet science is hardly restricted to its fictional applications, and thanks to the basic principles of DNA fingerprinting in humans biologists worldwide have expanded the branch to include other species. Yes, biologists use DNA fingerprinting to identify animal species, often with great success - and for scientifically and environmentally important reasons.

DNA fingerprinting is, in and of itself, something of a misnomer when speaking about animals. Most animals do not have fingerprints, per se, and those that do are typically restricted to species with high manual dexterity. Primates like gorillas have fingerprints, for example, as do koalas which require dexterous fingers for eating and climbing. Fingerprints create rough ridges that allow animals to grip surfaces more easily. Most other animals either don't climb or have other means of doing so, and thus have no fingerprints.

Consequently, DNA fingerprints in reference to animals often refers to tell-tale signs left behind by animals, or on the animal's body, that can be submitted to DNA testing to determine the animal's species. DNA samples can include blood, skin, fecal matter, hair or fur, semen, saliva and anything else that comes off the animal's body while going about its daily business. In particular, urban and wild authorities can use DNA testing to identify animals that have attacked humans.

On the more positive side, biologists will often use DNA fingerprinting for tracking the migration habits of animals or even identifying whole new species of animals. DNA samples are kept in laboratories and new samples can be compared to the old by breaking down the genetic strands in each and comparing their helixes. Radically unfamiliar DNA strands may be an indication of a new species. For example, researchers in Australia identified a new species of dolphin in 2008 based solely on genetic evidence.

Perhaps most important for the preservation of animals on Earth, DNA fingerprinting can be used in conjunction with electronic tracking to determine species that are at risk of extinction, or whose numbers are at least dwindling. DNA evidence culled from a poacher can help convict them if they've been killing endangered or protected species, both preventing that poacher from engaging in future illicit activities and deterring other poachers for fear of being caught. And, vital for the future, DNA fingerprinting used in conjunction with DNA banks can preserve entire species by storing DNA in case of ongoing animal shortages. Had DNA fingerprinting existed several hundred years ago, dodos might still be alive today.

In short, DNA fingerprinting is a multi-faceted science. It has much to offer the world beyond simply identifying criminals for punishment. The ability to identify animals via their DNA will continue to play an important role in the future, and may provide ever more solid evidence that some animals need to be protected lest they pass from the Earth for good.

More about this author: Matt Bird

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