The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences has awarded the Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences 2018 to Paul Hebert, Research Chair in Molecular Biodiversity at the University of Guelph (Canada).
A catalogue for the library of life
Paul Hebert received the Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences for his pivotal contribution to developing a genetic barcode capable of classifying every biological species on Earth.
Paul Hebert is known as the ‘father of DNA barcoding’, a taxonomic method that uses a short section of DNA from a standardised region of the genome to identify different species, in the same way a supermarket scanner uses barcodes to identify purchases.
Hebert first raised the possibility of such a method in 2000. He is now the Scientific Director of the International Barcode of Life Project (iBOL), in which researchers from 25 countries are attempting to assign barcodes to millions of species on Earth.
The project has demonstrated that DNA barcoding can speed the discovery of new species and distinguish between separate species that used to be classified as one. Thanks to DNA barcoding, we now have a more precise way of measuring the number of species that inhabit a specific ecosystem and we can analyse complex food chains with much greater accuracy.
The Barcode of Life Project is generating an impressive stream of data. Hebert’s research group is building digital systems to gather, store and analyse all this information and make it available to the community. The database now contains the genetic codes of approximately 600,000 species and is being used by almost 25,000 researchers worldwide.
New methods are bringing the ultimate goal of the project ever closer: a comprehensive inventory of global biodiversity. If the project succeeds, its legacy will yield lasting benefits to humankind.
Paul Hebert was born in Kingston, Ontario (Canada) in 1947. He studied Biology at Queen’s University but transferred to the University of Cambridge (United Kingdom) for his doctorate in Genetics.
After obtaining his PhD in 1972, Hebert spent three years at Sydney University (Australia) and a year at the Natural History Museum in London as a postdoctoral fellow. Back in Canada, he took up his first research post at the University of Windsor in 1976.
In 1986 he became the Director of the Great Lakes Institute at Windsor; four years later, he was appointed to a chair at the University of Guelph (Canada).
In addition to his professorship, Hebert has also chaired the Huntsman Marine Science Centre; he is currently Scientific Director of the International Barcode of Life Project and Director of the Centre for Biodiversity Genomics.
In 2015, he was invested as an Officer of the Order of Canada. He has received various other honours and prizes, including the Aster Award from the Toronto Botanical Garden. He was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Waterloo (Canada) and was made an honorary professor of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Zoology.