The technology could help remove illegal fish and timber supplies from global markets, get rid of pests such as mosquitoes and even reduce the numbers of collisions between birds and planes.

"Like in the film of Star Trek, anything scanned by such devices could display its image, name and function"

Allen Chen, Academia Sinica, Taiwan

"We're now trying to launch in Canada the International Barcode of Life Project, which has a five-year life span," Paul Hebert, head of the Canadian Centre for DNA Barcoding, who is spearheading the project told AFP at a three-day seminar on DNA in Taipei.

"We hope to put $150 million into this through a 25-nation alliance."

"The idea is collectively we would gather five million specimens and 500,000 species within that five-year period," Hebert added, saying the entire project could take 15 years.

The seminar in Taipei has brought together 350 scientists from 45 countries to debate the "barcoding of life" concept.

Scientists estimate that while nearly 1.8 million species have already been identified, there may be another 10 million that are not known.

But DNA barcoding technology has progressed so rapidly that scientists predict that science fiction-style powers to recognise previously unfamiliar creatures could become reality in a decade.

"Like in the film of Star Trek, anything scanned by such devices could display its image, name and function," said Allen Chen from Taiwan's Academia Sinica, Taiwan's top academic body and one of three main organisers of the conference.

"This could be done 10 years from now after a global barcoding data bank is set up," said Chen, an expert in corals.

Scientists are already working on hand-held barcoders that would enable users to access a barcode data bank using a global positioning system, said Taiwan's Shao Kwang-tsao, one of the conference chairs.

Hebert said the alliance would invest heavily in the development of such technology.

This week's conference is being held by the Washington-based Consortium for the Barcode of Life, which was set up in 2003 in response to Hebert's initiative and now includes some 160 organisations.

At its first conference in London in 2005, the consortium's data banks collected some 33,000 DNA references belonging to some 12,700 species.

Increasing attention

Today it counts more than 290,000 DNA samples from some 31,000 species, including about 20 per cent of the world's estimated 10,000 bird species and 10 per cent of the 35,000 estimated marine and freshwater fish species.

The "barcoding of life" projects have drawn increasing attention, particularly from the US, Canada and Europe, as scientists explore the technique's applications, which range from food safety and consumer protection to the identification of herbal plants.

One British scientist is working on a project to barcode 2,800 species of mosquito, or 80 per cent of those known to the world, within two years.

The project is aimed at reducing the scourge of malaria, which infects some 500 million people a year and is spread by some mosquitoes.