Two recent developments in biological sciences and technology have lead me to believe the Tricorder of Star Trek fame is not so distant.
The first is a hand held medical scanner/communication device. Granot, Ivorra and Rubinsky published their creation through the online PLoS ONE journal on April 30th of this year. The technology uses a very similar setup to the newer cellular phones, and detects voltage differences to produce images. From the pictures you can see it is pretty much a modified cell phone, connected to an electrode setup.
The second article was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London in 2003. Hebert et al provide a complete system to taxonomic identification through the Cytochrome Oxidase I gene of mitochondrial DNA. This gene is found in all animals, and varies quite a bit between species, however, its intraspecific variation is low. The mutation rate of the gene is just right for acting as a species barcode, whereas the DNA sequence identifies the species by its closeness to a record of known gene sequences. The aim is to sequence this gene in all animal species and use it as a universal identifier. There are several worldwide barcoding initiatives going on for most of the major taxonomic groupings. I really don’t see it as that far off before we have a good record for all described vertebrate species, although it will probably take much longer for the invertebrates. The practical uses for this is immense. Already, barcoding has been used to uncover fish market fraud. http://amphidrome.wordpress.com/2008/08/27/fishmonger-fraud/
Now, wouldn’t it be cool if you could combine the two of these? You would have a cell phone that could do biological scanning, as well as sequence COI genes and compare them to the online database. You would have a combination communicator, biological scanner, and species identification device, in essence, a tricorder.
Its not that far off.
http://www.barcodinglife.org/views/login.php – The heart of the barcoding initiative. Note the search engine of over 160 thousand barcodes. You can simply type your sequence in and it will give you the closest matches.