HANDY devices like Doctor Who's sonic screwdriver are within reach, scientists say.

Organisers of the International Barcode of Life conference, in Adelaide this week, plan to use miniature DNA decoding devices to answer the question: “What species is that?”

Conference co-chair and director of the Australian Centre for Evolutionary Biology and Biodiversity at the University of Adelaide, Professor Andrew Lowe, says this is one of the most exciting developments in genomics.

"You point this thing at an alien species and it tells you all about it. That’s where we want to get to … maybe in five years, which is really neat."

By 2015 scientists expect to have a reference library of five million standardised DNA sequences they can use to identify 500,000 species, which is more than a quarter of all known species on Earth.

They would take a sample and then compare it with the sequences in the database, looking for a match.

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