Thursday, August 21, 2014


Unpacked and ready to go.
Do you want to know which bug just ate all the tomato plants in your backyard? 
Do you want to know what fish species you just had for dinner? 
Do you want to know what mysterious animal roams around in the nearby park but all you have is a couple of hairs it left behind?

As announced via twitter yesterday - I have received my LifeScanner kit and as promised here is my blog post about the first encounter. Actually it wasn't the first, as my wife got a kit earlier and she and the kids tested it out last weekend but that's a different story for maybe another post.

I knew about the development of the LifeScanner app and the collecting kit already for a while. That's not surprising as both have been, at least partially, developed at our institute. The BOLD group teamed up with SAP to develop this new approach to citizen science.

So what is LifeScanner?
LifeScanner is an app for iPhone and iPad devices designed to help people discover the diversity of living organisms around them and to help them contribute to a global knowledge-base on biological diversity. 

The app actually does a bit more. It connects the user to the wealth of BOLD's public data in a creative and very intuitive fashion. If the GPS function of your device is switched on it will provide you with a map of the surrounding region and all sampling locations that are recorded on BOLD. You can swipe between the species of a particular location, many come with images that are also retrieved from the database. The system allows you to search for particular species and whether you can find them in close proximity. Overall handling is very simple and user-friendly. The only caveat is that it is not available for other platforms outside the Apple world, which means at this point it won't be used by the other half of mobile users that own e.g. Android devices. It is also not optimized for iPads which is an issue when it comes to the specimen photos as they appear pixelated on the larger screen.

The Lifescanner sampling kit can be used to submit any kind of animal sample one comes across. It contains everything needed to submit 4 samples for identification and contribution to BOLD. Thanks to DNA Barcoding a sample can be many things. A citizen scientist can submit a hair found in the backyard, an insect, a feather, but also animal products from the store or the restaurant. No plant material at this point but that will change in the future. Lets not forget that for plants we need at least two DNA sequences for a good ID. That is probably not the best thing to start with during a trial phase.

The app is designed to help with the collecting work. Each vial has QR code, which can be scanned using the app. You can make a photo of the specimen and add it to the data record together with some details about the specimen. The data are transferred to BOLD through the app which ensures that all required data are in place when the specimen arrives. The sampling tubes are pre-filled with a non-toxic DNA preservation liquid. Once all four tubes are filled. they are packed in specimen bag and send off via return envelope. The app includes a detailed tracking system and the DNA Barcoding results are delivered to it as well.

Here is a video that shows all the described functionality in a bit more detail.

At this point you (if you reside in Canada or the US) can request a trial species identification kit but the number of free kits is understandably limited. In the future it will be available for purchase everywhere but the price is not yet known. I would imagine that it won't be overly expensive and lets face it, there aren't many labs that accept such a mixed-bag of samples from public sources without charging an arm and a leg. Their service has been designed for professional use and not for a family that took some samples on the last weekend hike.

To me this combination of educational app and collecting kit is a big step forward  in making DNA-based species identification available to everyone. It is simple and fun to use, and it puts a form of curiosity driven science in the hands of the public.

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