A group of scientists from institutes around the world are about to embark on a mission to reach possibly the most ambitious milestone in biological research.
The Earth BioGenome Project (EBP) was recently launched with the goal of sequencing the genomes of every eukaryote on Earth – about 1.5 million species in total. This includes all known plants and animals. To date, only about 3,500 species have had their genomes completely sequenced, which means there is still 99.8% of the Earth’s species left to sequence.
Since the development of the first DNA sequencing method by Frederick Sanger in 1977, scientists have used DNA sequencing to learn much about complex biological life. Sanger and his team sequenced the genome of a virus, which was the first genome to ever be fully sequenced.
More than a decade later, the Human Genome Project began in 1990 with the purpose of sequencing the entire human genome. The project was completed in 2003, with an estimated cost of $5 billion USD equivalent to today.
With advances in sequencing technologies leading to faster and more accurate DNA analysis, sequencing a human genome now costs as little as $1000 USD, and prices are only expected to fall.
Furthermore, companies such as Illumina offer genome sequencing instruments that can completely sequence a genome in an hour. Of course, there is still the additional work of assembling the sequences and analysing the genome, but this too is becoming easier to do with advances in AI technology.
The Earth BioGenome Project is estimated to cost $4.7 billion USD, which is less than the cost of sequencing the human genome in 1990. They are also hoping to complete the project in less time, with a target completion date set at ten years from now.
Sequencing will be conducted by scientists at institutes around the world. Thus far, 17 institutions have agreed to contribute to the project. Here in the U.K., institutes including the Wellcome Sanger Institute, the University of Edinburgh, and the Natural History Museum in London, have made one of the largest commitments to the project – they will focus on sequencing all 66,0000 species found in the U.K.
Once complete, the EBP is expected to produce 1 billion gigabytes of data that will be free for all to access online.
Scientists are confident that this EBP will unlock valuable information about life on Earth. They predict that the data generated by the project could be used to improve human welfare and species conservation.
For instance, a better understanding of the genetics of crops could allow for the development of more drought or pest resistant crops.
The EBP is also hoping to identify new sources of drugs, bio-materials, and synthetic fuels.
Additionally, analysing the genome of an endangered plant or animal species genome could assist in understanding how it adapts best to certain environments.
Of course, a project as big as the EBP will come with critics.
Jeff Ollerton, a biodiversity professor at the University of Northampton, believes that the project is “vanity science” and that the billions of dollars could instead be used to directly protect habitats of endangered species.
While the Earth BioGenome project will produce an abundant source of data for scientists to use for different avenues of research, it does not necessarily mean that we will be able to find new cures for diseases and save endangered species anytime soon. It will first require sifting through 1.5 million genomes, totaling 1 billion gigabytes of data, for a sequence of DNA that might be an answer to a problem – a daunting task even with the most advanced computers.