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Scientists aim to sequence all 1.5 million known species on Earth - and Wellcome Sanger Institute will play leading role




Inside the sequencing facility at the Wellcome Sanger Institute. Image: Wellcome Sanger Institute, Genome Research Ltd
Inside the sequencing facility at the Wellcome Sanger Institute. Image: Wellcome Sanger Institute, Genome Research Ltd

The Hinxton institute will sequence 66,000 UK species for the Darwin Tree of Life Project

Inside the sequencing facility at the Wellcome Sanger Institute. Image: Wellcome Sanger Institute, Genome Research Ltd
Inside the sequencing facility at the Wellcome Sanger Institute. Image: Wellcome Sanger Institute, Genome Research Ltd

An extraordinary global effort to sequence the genetic codes of all 1.5 million known species of animals, plants, protozoa and fungi on Earth is under way – and the Wellcome Sanger Institute is to play a leading role.

Working with collaborators, the Hinxton-based institute will sequence 66,000 species in the UK for the Darwin Tree of Life Project, launched in London earlier this month.

It forms part of the worldwide Earth BioGenome Project (EBP), which is designed to create a new foundation for biology that can help inform solutions for preserving biodiversity and sustaining human societies.

The UK project is expected to take 10 years, and will cost about £100million in its first five.

The red squirrels genome was sequenced by the Sanger Institute in the 25 Genomes Project.
The red squirrels genome was sequenced by the Sanger Institute in the 25 Genomes Project.

Professor Sir Mike Stratton, director of the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: “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.

“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 scientific partners and funders behind the ambitious project say a greater understanding of Earth’s biodiversity and the responsible stewarding of its resources are among the most crucial scientific and social challenges of the new millennium. A new understanding of evolution and the interaction of the planet’s organisms is critical in meeting them.

As reported in the Cambridge Independent, the Sanger Institute marked its 25th anniversary by working with collaborators and using PacBio long-read technology to sequence the genomes of 25 UK species for the first time – including the golden eagle, red and grey squirrels, the European robin, the Fen raft spider and the blackberry. Insights from the 25 Genomes Project will be used when tackling the Darwin Tree of Life Project.

The golden eagles genome was sequenced by the Sanger Institute in the 25 Genomes Project.
The golden eagles genome was sequenced by the Sanger Institute in the 25 Genomes Project.

The Sanger Institute, which will serve as the genomics hub in the UK, will collaborate with the Natural History Museum in London, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Earlham Institute, Edinburgh Genomics, University of Edinburgh, EMBL-EBI and others in sample collection, DNA sequencing, assembling and annotating genomes and storing the data.

The institute will also co-ordinate with groups contributing to the EBP, such as the G10K Vertebrate Genomes Project (VGP) and the 10,000 Genomes Plant Project.

Dr Paul Flicek, a senior scientist and team leader at EMBL’s European Bioinformatic Institute, also based on the Wellcome Genome Campus, said: “The Darwin Tree of Life project is an exciting opportunity to understand life, evolution, ecosystems and biodiversity by leveraging genomics and our experience in creating biological data resources that are freely available to everyone in the world.”

Dr Jonas Korlach, chief scientific officer at Pacific Biosciences, said: “PacBio recently provided the foundational technology to enable completion of the 25 Genomes Project at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, and we are honored to be an integral part of the Darwin Tree of Life project as it deploys the power of our sequencing technology on a much broader scale. With the recent and ongoing improvements in our technology, we are well positioned to support the needs for scaling the sequencing and assembling of the genomes for the large number of species targeted by this project as well as the Earth BioGenome Project.”

All of the data created will be stored in public domain databases and made freely available for research use.

Sir Jim Smith, director of science at Wellcome, said: “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. 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.”

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