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8,000 British species to be sequenced as £9.4m from Wellcome funds first phase of Darwin Tree of Life project

Funding of £9.4million has been confirmed by Wellcome to begin the Darwin Tree of Life project, which will sequence all species in the British Isles.

In this first phase, 10 organisations will be involved in collecting and sequencing around 8,000 British species of animal, plant and fungi, and delivering the genomes of 2,000, giving an unprecedented insight into the evolution of life on Earth.

A kingfisher (21783956)
A kingfisher (21783956)

It will also uncover new genes, proteins and metabolic pathways that could help develop new drugs, while supporting the conservation of global biodiversity amid the threats posed by climate change and human development.

Professor Richard Durbin, in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Genetics, who will lead the university’s involvement in the collaboration. said: “This project is the start of a transformation for biological research. It will change our relationship to the natural world by enabling us to understand life as never before. It will create a knowledge resource for others to build on, just as we’ve seen with the Human Genome Project for human health.”

Ultimately, the aim is sequence all 60,000 species that live in the British Isles - a launchpad for the ambitious Earth Biogenome Project - a moonshot for biology that aims to do the same for all life on the planet.

Dr Michael Dunn, head of genetics and molecular sciences at Wellcome, said: “The mission to sequence all life on the British Isles is ambitious, but by bringing together this diverse group of organisations we believe that we have the right team to achieve it.

“We’ll gain new insights into nature that will help develop new treatments for infectious diseases, identify drugs to slow ageing, generate new approaches to feeding the world and create new bio-materials.”

The UK organisations involved are:

• University of Cambridge

• Earlham Institute (EI)

• University of Edinburgh

• EMBL’s-European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI)

• The Marine Biological Association (Plymouth)

• Natural History Museum

• Royal Botanic Gardens Kew

• Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

• University of Oxford

• Wellcome Sanger Institute.

Professor Mark Blaxter, lead of the Tree of Life programme at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: “The Darwin Tree of Life Project will change biology forever, delivering new insights into the numerous animals, plants, fungi and protists that call the British Isles home. The impact of this work will be equivalent to the effect the Human Genome Project has had on human health over the last 25 years.”

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