One of the most ambitious projects in the history of biology aims to sequence the DNA of every single complex organism on the planet within 10 years.
The monumental initiative is being dubbed a modern-day Noah’s ark and will contain the entire genome of everything from Attenborough’s pitcher plant and Saharan silver ants to giant kelp and the American bison, although it will be far more than a simple repository for their DNA. It is being seen as a follow up to the prodigious Human Genome Project and is expected to influence everything ranging from conservation to medicine.
The project, officially called the Earth BioGenome Project, has been launched by an international group of scientists in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The ambitious plan is to sequence all 1.5 million known species of eukaryotes – a group that includes plants, fungi, insects, and vertebrates – while also attempting to have a stab at the 10 to 15 million unknown species of eukaryotes that are still out there, including many single-celled organisms, insects, and marine creatures.
To date, it is thought that just 0.2 percent of eukaryotes have been sequenced, meaning there is a gargantuan task at hand.
“We present a perspective on the Earth BioGenome Project (EBP), a moonshot for biology that aims to sequence, catalog, and characterize the genomes of all of Earth’s eukaryotic biodiversity over a period of 10 years,” the authors write. “The outcomes of the EBP will inform a broad range of major issues facing humanity, such as the impact of climate change on biodiversity, the conservation of endangered species and ecosystems, and the preservation and enhancement of ecosystem services.”
But the results are likely to have a much broader impact than just that for the environment. The researchers expect the project could also help in the development of new drugs for infectious and genetic diseases, could be used to inform the development of new biofuels and biomaterials, and could help to explore new food sources that may be critical when the human population hits the expected 9.6 billion by 2050.
The project has been given a time frame of 10 years and a projected cost of $4.7 billion. If this can be done, it would be utterly extraordinary, considering the Human Genome Project (in which the goal was to sequence our own DNA) took 13 years and cost $3 billion. It simply goes to show how far our technological advancements have brought us since that ground-breaking project was initiated in 1990.
The plan so far is to start linking together projects that have already started the herculean task, such as the Vertebrate Genomes Project, Global Invertebrate Genome Alliance, and the 10,000 Plant Genomes Project, before expanding it further. Researchers will delve into museums, zoos, and herbariums to collect, catalog, and sequence every species they can find.
The results will be available for anyone to use, and a pilot program is being set up to create a system that will allow for any benefits arising from the project to be shared equitably with the indigenous and traditional communities whose land many of the species are likely to be found on. This will be of particular significance in places such as Brazil, especially where many medically important plants are expected to be discovered.