Biologists Launch 'Moonshot' Plan to Sequence the DNA of Every Living Thing on Earth

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Scientists working on the Earth BioGenome Project think of it as 'the next moonshot for biology.'. Yakov Oskanov/Shutterstock

Back in 1976, scientists completed the first sequencing of a genome, a relatively small genome of 3,569 base pairs belonging to the single-stranded RNA virus Bacteriophage MS2. Since then, scientists have been steadily worked to sequence the genomes of many other organisms, including nematodes, fruit flies, platypuses and, of course, humans.

An international group of scientists wants to kick that effort into high gear with an ambitious plan to sequence the genome of every eukaryotic species on the planet. That's more than 1.5 million species, all the organisms with cells that have a nucleus.

Oh, and they want to do it the next 10 years.

Biodiversity in the U.K.

The Earth BioGenome Project (EBP) was first proposed in April 2017, with a perspective paper published earlier this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In that paper, 24 scientists laid out the reasons for EBP, explaining that sequencing all the eukaryotic species on Earth "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."

EBP will comprise of more than 12 established sequencing projects, many of which are already focused on specific lifeforms. In addition to the sequencing, the project seeks to standardize sequencing efforts across the globe to make the data useful to scientists around the world instead of just those in a particular field.

"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," Harris Lewin, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Davis, and chair of the EBP, told Nature.

A red squirrel nibbles on food
The red squirrel genome has been sequenced by the Wellcome Sanger Institute. Giedriius/Shutterstock

The process formally started on Nov. 2 centered around the U.K.'s Wellcome Sanger Institute. Along with the Natural History Museum in London, Royal Botanic Gardens-Kew, Earlham Institute, Edinburgh Genomics, University of Edinburgh and others, the Sanger Institute will serve as the "genomics hub" for the initiative, called the Darwin Tree of Life Project. This branch of the project will focus exclusively on species found in the U.K. — all 66,000 of them.

"The Darwin Tree of Life Project is a tremendously important advance for the Earth BioGenome Project and will serve as a model for other parallel national efforts," Lewin said in a statement released by the Sanger Institute. "The Wellcome Sanger Institute brings decades of experience in genome sequencing and biology to help build the global capacity necessary to produce high quality genomes at scale."

The Sanger Institute already released the genomes of 25 U.K. species in early October to celebrate its 25th anniversary. These genomes included the brown trout, red and gray squirrels, blackberries, giant hogweed and the Eurasian otter.

Genetic costs

Seedlings of native rainforest trees in Madagascar
At least one scientist rejects the cost and goals of the Earth BioGenome Project on the grounds it could stunt conservation efforts, like this project to plant seedlings in Madagascar. Elona K Hart/Shutterstock

The Sanger Institute is expected to spend £50 million ($64.8 million) over eight years to establish processes for sample collection, sequencing and genome assembly. The first five years of the Darwin Tree of Life project are expected to carry a total cost of about £100 million.

The entirety of the project is expected to cost almost $5 billion. The project has about a third of the $600 million it needs for the next three years, which will include some of the project's first phase: sequencing genomes of one species from each of the 9,000 taxonomic families.

The cost and goals of the project raised eyebrows from some scientists, including Jeff Ollerton, professor of biodiversity at England's University of Northampton. Ollerton tweeted that "sequencing the genomes of all life on Earth will do nothing to conserve them if we don't protect their ecosystems. This is vanity science at best. $5 billion would protect a lot of habitat."

Ollerton criticized the Earth BioGenome Project when it was formally announced in April 2017, saying that it had the same flaw as "naming all the species" initiatives do: It could take funding away from conservation efforts, including habitat conversation that many of the species being sequenced require to survive.