For centuries biologists have identified new species at a painstakingly slow pace, describing specimens' physical features and other defining traits, and often trying to fit a species into the tree of life before naming and publishing it. Now, they have begun to determine whether a specimen is likely a novel species in hours—and will soon do so at a cost of pennies. It's a revolution driven by short stretches of DNA—dubbed barcodes in a nod to the familiar product identifiers—that vary just enough to provide species-distinguishing markers, combined with fast, cheap DNA sequencers.
"Biodiversity science is entering a very golden era," says Paul Hebert of the University of Guelph in Canada. On 16 June, a team he leads will launch a $180 million global effort to identify more than 2 million new species of multicellular creatures. Other teams are also adopting the approach to comb samples for new species in their labs—or even directly in the field. With the world losing species faster than they are discovered, biologists are welcoming the technology.