Biologists Have Started Their Attempt to Sequence the DNA of Every Living Thing on Earth

The Earth BioGenome Project aims to map the genome of 1.5 million plants, animals, and fungi.

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Nov 1 2018, 12:30pm

Image: Wikipedia

Last year, a small group of researchers unveiled their plans to sequence the DNA of every species on Earth in the next 10 years. The daunting task, known as the Earth BioGenome Project, would actually only include eukaryotic species (so plants, animals, and fungi—no bacteria), but is still a mammoth undertaking that would require mapping the genomes of more than 1.5 million species. As of Thursday, they’ve officially begun.

The first leg of the endeavor will cover the United Kingdom, with a number of institutions collaborating to sequence the genomes of the 66,000 species in the UK that haven’t yet been mapped. Dubbed the Darwin Tree of Life Project, it’s the first major contribution to the global effort to sequence every living thing.

“The [project] is a tremendously important advance for the Earth BioGenome Project and will serve as a model for other parallel national efforts,” said Harris Lewin, a biologist at the University of California, and Chair of the Earth BioGenome Project, in a press release.

The Wellcome Sanger Institute, a nonprofit genetic research lab, will work with the Natural History Museum in London, the Royal Botanic Gardens, and the University of Edinburgh, along with other institutions to collect samples and conduct the DNA mapping, which will be done using long-read sequencing technology—a highly accurate end-to-end genome-sequencing technique.

The Earth BioGenome Project was first publicly proposed at a meeting in 2017, and since then, there’s been a lot of planning and goal-setting. The group published a more detailed outline of the project this summer, but there hasn't been a lot of action when it comes to actually cataloging the DNA of millions of species. The project aims to provide valuable data that can be used to discover new drugs, slow aging, create biomaterials, and improve conservation efforts. With the announcement of the UK project, more countries and regions will start rolling out simultaneous efforts in the months and years to come.

“It is hoped that together we can uncover the blueprints of the diversity of UK life, which will effectively re-write what we know about these species,” Tim Littlewood, Head of Life Sciences at the Natural History Museum, London, said in a press release. “Sequencing the genomes of all life will reveal aspects of evolution we’ve not even dreamt of.”