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Global effort to sequence genomes of all complex life on Earth

2 November 2018
Australia to join world campaign with ‘50 in 5 initiative’
With ecological diversity under threat, a global alliance to sequence the genomic data of all eukaryotic life on Earth has been launched. It aims to analyse the genomes of 1.5 million animals, plants, fungi and protozoa.
The sequencing of the koala genome was announced in July. Now scientists want to sequence the genomes of 1.5 million species.

The sequencing of the koala genome was announced in July. Now scientists want to sequence the genomes of 1.5 million species.

The Earth BioGenome Project, a global effort to sequence the genetic code, or genomes of all 1.5 million known animal, plant, protozoan and fungal species on Earth, was launched on Thursday as scientific partners and funders from around the globe gathered in London to discuss progress in organising and funding the project.

The Earth BioGenome Project (EBP) will ultimately create a new foundation for biology to drive solutions for preserving biodiversity and sustaining human societies.

Australia is being represented at the EBP launch by Professor Katherine Belov from the University of Sydney School of Life and Environmental Sciences. She will help lead the Australian team aiming to sequence 50 species over the next five years.

The EBP aims to sequence, catalogue and categorise the genomes of all of Earth’s eukaryotic* biodiversity over a period of 10 years. The projected cost of the EBP is $US4.7 billion. Accounting for inflation, the Human Genome Project today would cost $US5 billion.

A greater understanding of Earth’s biodiversity and the responsible stewarding of its resources are among the most crucial scientific and social challenges of the new millennium. The overcoming of these challenges requires new scientific knowledge of evolution and interactions among millions of the planet’s organisms.

Currently, fewer than 3500, or about 0.2 per cent of all known eukaryotic species have had their genome sequenced. The successful sequencing of the koala genome was announced in July by the Australian Museum, University of NSW and the University of Sydney.

Sequencing all genes of all life will revolutionise our understanding of biology and evolution, bolster efforts to conserve, help protect and restore biodiversity, and in return create new benefits for society and human welfare.

Professor Harris Lewin, University of California, Davis and Chair of the Earth BioGenome Project, said: “The Earth BioGenome Project can be viewed as infrastructure for the new biology. Having the roadmap, the blueprints for all living species of eukaryotes will be a tremendous resource for new discoveries, understanding the rules of life, how evolution works, new approaches for the conservation of rare and endangered species, and provide new resources for researchers in agricultural and medical fields.”

The EBP has made extraordinary progress in the last year leading up to the official launch.  A collaboration of 17 institutions from across the globe, including the USA, United Kingdom, China, Germany, Australia, Denmark and Brazil, has come together and signed a Memorandum of Understanding that commits each institution to work together toward the common goals of the project. It is expected that additional partner institutions, organisations and communities will join as the project progresses.

Professor Katherine Belov.

Professor Belov said: “Off the back of the sequencing the koala genome, Australian researchers plan to sequence 50 of Australia’s most endangered animals over the next five years.”

That project – the 50 in 5 initiative – will be led by Professor Belov, Dr Rebecca Johnson from the Australian Museum Research Institute, Professor Marilyn Renfree from the University of Melbourne and Professor Marc Wilkins from UNSW. The effort will be supported by researchers at University of California, Davis. The initiative also has in-principle support from the threatened species units at state and federal level.

“This genomic data will provide the foundation for strategic genetic management of small, isolated populations of iconic and unique marsupials, amphibians and birds, including the bilby, numbat, orange-bellied parrot, red handfish and plains-wanderer.

“The Earth BioGenome Project allows us to join a global network of experts, tap into their expertise and computational pipelines, and achieve our goals much more quickly than we could if working alone.”

This project will build on recent achievements of sequencing sets of species’ genomes for the first time. For example, the Vertebrate Genomes Project, which aims to sequence the genetic code of all extant vertebrates, released the genomes of 14 species, including bat and fish species, the Canadian Lynx and Kakapo.

The Sanger Institute will lead the UK contribution to the EBP by sequencing all 66,000 eukaryotic species across the British Isles, in a project known as the Darwin Tree of Life Project.

Professor Sir Mike Stratton, Director of the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: “Globally, more than half of the vertebrate population has been lost in the past 40 years, and 23,000 species face the threat of extinction in the near future. Using the biological insights we will get from the genomes of all eukaryotic species, we can look to our responsibilities as custodians of life on this planet, tending life on Earth in a more informed manner using those genomes, at a time when nature is under considerable pressure, not least from us.”

Sir Jim Smith, Director of Science at Wellcome, said: “When the Human Genome Project began 25 years ago, we could not imagine how the DNA sequence produced back then would transform research into human health and disease today. Embarking on a mission to sequence all life on Earth is no different. From nature we shall gain insights into how to develop new treatments for infectious diseases, identify drugs to slow ageing, generate new approaches to feeding the world or create new bio materials.”

Koala genome was sequenced earlier this year

Marcus Strom

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