Imagining Sisyphus happy: DNA barcoding and the unnamed majority

Mark Blaxter

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The vast majority of life on earth is physically small, and is classifiable as micro- or meio-biota. These organisms are numerically dominant and it is likely that they are also abundantly speciose. In contrast the vast majority of taxonomic effort has been expended on “charismatic megabionts”: larger organisms where a wealth of morphology has facilitated Linnaean species definition. The hugely successful Linnaean project is unlikely to be extensible to the totality of ~10 million species in a reasonable time frame and thus alternative toolkits and methodologies need to be developed. One such toolkit is DNA barcoding, particularly in its metabarcoding or metagenetics mode, where organisms are identified purely by the presence of a diagnostic DNA sequence in samples that are not processed for morphological identification. Building on secure Linnaean foundations, classification of unknown (and unseen) organisms to molecular operational taxonomic units (MOTUs), and deployment of these MOTUs in biodiversity science promises a rewarding resolution to the Sisyphean task of naming all the world’s species.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages9
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1702
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2016


  • metabarcoding
  • Sisyphus
  • meiofauna


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