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‘Why not sequence everything?’ A plan to decode every complex species on Earth

The Earth BioGenome Project aims to sequence 1.5 million genomes and will probably cost US$4.7 billion.

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Platypus

A composite image of a duck-billed platypus, one of the few complex organisms whose genomes have already been sequenced.Credit: Dave Watts/Nature Picture Library

An ambitious effort to sequence the genome of every complex organism on Earth was officially launched on 1 November in London.

“Variation is the fount of all genetic knowledge,” says project member and evolutionary geneticist Jenny Graves of La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. “The more variation you have the better — so why not sequence everything?”

The Earth BioGenome Project aims to sequence the genomes of the roughly 1.5 million known animal, plant, protozoan and fungal species — collectively known as eukaryotes — worldwide over the next decade. The initiative is estimated to cost US$4.7 billion, although only a small proportion of that money has been committed so far.

As part of the effort, scientists at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Hinxton, UK, announced plans to spend up to £50 million (US$65 million) over 8 years to sequence the genomes of the eukaryotic species in the United Kingdom, thought to number about 66,000.

Wellcome Sanger’s support — which will come out of the Sanger’s overall budget — is among the largest commitments to the effort yet made.

Total financial commitments made so far add up to around US$200 million, according to estimates by Harris Lewin, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Davis, who chairs the Earth BioGenome Project’s working group. That’s one-third of the cost estimated for the project’s 3-year ‘phase 1’ goal — sequencing the genome of at least 1 species in each of the 9,000 known families of eukaryotic organisms. He hopes to raise the rest of the funding within a year.

Collaborative chaos

The project comprises more than a dozen existing sequencing projects that are focused on, for instance, specific branches of the tree of life — such as birds, insects and plants — or on the biodiversity in a particular country, such as the UK effort, officially called the Darwin Tree of Life Project.

“We don’t need one genome project to rule them all,” says Lewin. Rather, the effort’s raison d’etre, he says, is to ensure that ongoing biodiversity sequencing efforts are standardized.

“When you go out into the communities, it’s chaos, it’s anarchy,” Lewin says. “If you get to the end of this and everybody did their own thing, it would be the Tower of the Babylon at the end.”

At the London meeting, participants thrashed out guidelines for sample collection, sequencing and data curation and sharing. Such standards are essential for making the genomes useful to all scientists, and not just those in a particular field, says Lewin.

Because it is an umbrella organization, the Earth BioGenome Project is also valuable for ensuring that sequencing efforts cover all branches of life, and not just those that have previously drawn the focus of scientists, say those involved in the effort.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07279-z
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