Evolutionary ecologist Dr. Dan Janzen and his wife and research partner, Dr. Winnie Harlow, stand outside of College of the Atlantic Gates Community Center.Evolutionary ecologist Dr. Dan Janzen and his wife and research partner, Dr. Winnie Harlow, stand outside of College of the Atlantic Gates Community Center. Credit: Hugo Navarro ’21

Bioliteracy, or an understanding of local living populations, must be embraced if humankind wants to sustain Earth’s current biodiversity, Janzen told a standing-room-only crowd at COA Thomas S. Gates Jr. Community Center.

When we know what creatures are living around us, we can work more easily to protect and preserve them, he said.

Janzen is a biologist who is well known for his biodiversity research in Costa Rica. He has worked with large companies and national parks to find ways for development and nature to coexist. His latest work on DNA barcoding is increasing the average citizen’s interaction with science; this process allows for organisms to be easily identified with the smallest piece of DNA, which Janzen said is incredibly important because the animals can be better catalogued and put into a database. This database can then be made accessible to the public, allowing the average citizen to become bioliterate.

Barcoding in this way is making bioliteracy easier and more accessible, Janzen said. Working largely in a Costa Rican national park, Janzen is making great strides. Using genetic barcodes, he found what was previously thought to be one species of butterfly was actually 12 different species, and he has been able to use traces of DNA to find large disparity in species.

In addition to biological worth, barcodes can also have important economic worth. Using Malaise traps (a type of insect trap) and barcodes, Janzen and his team were able to work with a Costa Rican company to gauge the impact a proposed water pipe would have on insect biodiversity. Janzen also assisted in helping an orange juice/oil plant dispose of its orange peels. He suggested using them as insect food in the national park, thus promoting biodiversity and the economy.

Dr. Dan Janzen's goal is to involve as many people as possible in his work bringing bioliteracy to the planet.Dr. Dan Janzen's goal is to involve as many people as possible in his work bringing bioliteracy to the planet. Credit: Hugo Navarro ’21

Popular scientific understanding is another goal of Janzen’s; he believes bioliteracy paves the way for more common acceptance of the scientific method and evidential learning. He wants to set up many more Malaise traps in effort to barcode all of Costa Rica’s species, which amount to 4% of Earth’s overall biodiversity, equivalent to the biodiversity of the U.S. and Canada combined. Janzen thinks this will not only increase common knowledge, but also aid in the use of biodiversity as a “biothermometer,” monitoring how species are moving and why. Janzen is confident barcoding will be a useful tool in the fight against climate change in the near future.

Janzen emphasizes the need to include in his research those it effects; due to this, many of the researchers on his team are locals passionate about the project, rather than distant academics. This idea was exemplified in his presentation, as much of it was in Spanish, reflecting Janzen’s push for inclusivity and citizen science. Janzen believes citizen science to be important, especially in Costa Rica, where there is a prominent educational classist divide. Citizen science empowers the lower class; this, coupled with bioliteracy, is Janzen’s hope for a more educated populus.

The barcoding process will spread once it becomes more streamlined, Janzen believes. He sees a future of easy and accessible genetic information, and expects anyone to have the ability to use a single butterfly leg to get an accurate species ID. Bioliteracy is the key to saving many living things, Janzen said, and he is excited to bring this practice forward.