The Zoonomia Project has taken on the mammoth task of completing the largest genomic comparison of mammalian families to date, including species from across 110 million years of evolution. With more than 120 species that hadn’t before been genetically sequenced in the collection, the analysis was published in the journal Nature and demonstrates the genetic diversity of mammalian families like never before.
The core aim of the research was to arm geneticists with the necessary information to investigate the origins of genetic diseases, as by looking back into evolutionary history they are able to identify mutations that have specific outcomes. By comparing human genes against those of different mammalian groups, it's hoped the study can shine new light on the origins of human disease. The dataset will be accessible to the entire scientific community via its website with no restrictions on its use.
The team working on the project also hope that by analyzing new genomes they will reveal new insights on endangered species that could boost conservation efforts. They have already discovered that mammalian groups with high extinction rates exhibited less genetic diversity compared to more resilient groups, and this knowledge could inform which extant groups should be prioritized to prevent further extinctions.
The dataset has already proved useful as part of the fight against SARS-CoV-2, as it was used to assess how at-risk different species were to infection. Using Zoonomia, the researchers identified 47 mammals that were likely candidates as reservoir or intermediate hosts for the pathogen, which will support ongoing research into the species of origin for the pandemic. Current evidence of its origin is unclear, but bats and possibly pangolins have been highlighted as species of particular interest.
The Zoonomia Project, which was previously known as the 200 Mammals Project, built on existing research and collaborated with 28 different institutions worldwide to gather its samples. When selecting their mammalian families of interest, they focused on species of medical, biological, and biodiversity conservation interest, with half their genomic samples coming from the Frozen Zoo at the San Diego Global Zoo.
"One of the most exciting things about the Zoonomia Project is that many of our core questions are accessible to people both within and outside of science," said first author Diane Genereux, a research scientist in the Vertebrate Genomics Group at the Broad, in a statement. "By designing scientific projects that are accessible to all, we can ensure benefits for public, human, and environmental health."