Genetic code of every animal, plant and fungus in UK to be sequenced in Darwin Tree of Life project

The project plans to sequence the genetic codes of 66,000 species in the UK, as part of a global effort to sequence the genomes of all 1.5 million known species of plant, animal, fungi and protozoa on Earth.

Weasel. © Miles Thorne/EyeEm/Getty

As part of the global Earth BioGenome Project (EBP), the Darwin Tree of Life project was launched at the start of November and aims to sequence the genetic code of all the species found in the UK.

Advertisement

The sequencing project will be undertaken by the Wellcome Sanger Institute, in collaboration with the Natural History Museum, Edinburgh Genomics, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and other organisations.

The EBP will ultimately create a new foundation for biology to drive solutions for preserving biodiversity and sustaining human societies. The project’s overall main aim is to gain a better understanding of all species on Earth, which could lead to further developments in medicine.

“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,” says Professor Sir Mike Stratton, director of the Wellcome Sanger Institute.

“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.”

The Darwin Tree of Life project from recent work to mark the 25th anniversary of the Wellcome Sanger Institute, where scientists sequenced the genomes of 25 UK species for the first time – including red and grey squirrels, the European robin and the fen raft spider.

The project is due to take place over the course of a decade, with an estimated cost of approximately £100 million for the first five years. It is only possible due to recent advances in both sequencing and information technology. The data collected will be stored in public domain databases, making it both free and available to use for research purposes.

“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,” says Sir Jim Smith, director of science at the Wellcome Sanger Institute.

“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.”

The total estimated cost for the ten-year Earth BioGenome Project is $4.7 billion, and with inflation, is approximately $5 billion. However, the large price tag on the project has seemingly not deterred those involved. Professor Mark Blaxter, of Edinburgh Genomics and the University of Edinburgh, claims the project is “revolutionary”.

Advertisement

“The launch of the Darwin Tree of Life project is the realisation of a longstanding dream,” he says. “Having the full genomes of all the organisms we share the planet with will change our ability to understand and care of them. The UK environmental and evolutionary research community has for many years been leading the way in sequencing the DNA of diverse species, and this revolutionary project will transform the science we can do.”