This Scientist Wants to Sequence the Genomes of 8,000 Endangered Animals Before They’re Gone

Sequencing the genomes of species most at risk can help us figure out which species need our attention the most.

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Mar 22 2017, 6:58pm

Erich Jarvis has a selfish reason for wanting to sequence the genomes of thousands of endangered animals. He needs a bunch of these species to survive long enough for him to study them.

"For me this is the moral thing to do," said Jarvis, a researcher at Rockefeller University, who studies how the brain processes sound, music, and language. He uses birdsongs to understand how these processes evolved. "From my own scientific perspective, a number of the species I'm most interested in studying for my evolution of language research include species that are going extinct."

Jarvis is the chair of Genome 10K, a project to sequence animal genomes, where he's leading a mission to archive high-quality, complete genome sequences for all endangered vertebrates—Jarvis says there are about 8,000 of them—in an effort to improve conservation. Think of it as a genomic Noah's Ark.

Species going extinct is a natural part of evolution, but experts believe that the number and rate at which many are dwindling now outpaces that natural cycle. Many experts say we're currently in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, so the race is on to try to protect and conserve these species in the face of a rapidly expanding human population and the impacts of climate change, among other pressures.

"For a species that's about to go extinct, you don't get a second chance."

The technologies for genomic analysis are becoming more accessible and affordable—Jarvis is working with new startups like Pacific Biosciences to find innovative and inexpensive ways to sequence—making a project like this more feasible. But it's still pricey, and they have yet to attract any funding.

Jarvis and his colleagues believe that sequencing the genomes of species most at risk is the best way to figure out which species need our attention the most.

"It will help scientists do a lot just with the genetic information, such as understanding if a species has a genetic mutation that makes it more susceptible to a toxin," Jarvis said. "It will also show us how diverse a genome is, and the greater the diversity, the more likely that species is to survive."

There's also the chance that these genomes could be useful even after a species has gone extinct. Scientists are currently working on a project to bring the wooly mammoth back from extinction, and Jarvis said, theoretically, a similar process could be used to revive other species that go extinct, so long as we have their genomes. (Of course, this isn't the main goal of the project, he added.)

"It's like a Jurassic Park type of thing," he said. "You could find a host from a similar cell line to put the genome inside of and try to bring back that species from extinction."

This ambitious project costs a lot of money; Jarvis estimated it would cost about $100 million. But he's optimistic—the project got a lot of engagement after applying for a grant from the MacArthur Foundation—and hopes that will help the team attract funding.

"Especially for conservation purposes, we should be sequencing out the highest quality genome possible," Jarvis said. "For a species that's about to go extinct, you don't get a second chance."