An international consortium of scientists is proposing to conduct sequencing the deoxyribonucleic acid – DNA – of all known eukaryotic species on Earth. The Earth BioGenome Project’s goal is to understand the evolution and organization of life by sequencing the genomes of 1.5 million known species of eukaryotes.
The eukaryote group encompasses plants, animals, fungi and other organisms whose cells have a nucleus housing their chromosomal DNA. To date the genomes of less than 0.2 percent of eukaryotic species have been sequenced, according to the research consortium.
The project also seeks to reveal some of the estimated 10 million to 15 million unknown species of eukaryotes, most of which are single-cell organisms, insects and small marine animals. The genomic data will be a freely available resource for scientific discovery. The resulting benefits will be shared with countries and indigenous communities where biodiversity is sourced.
Researchers estimate the proposed initiative will require 10 years. The cost of the initiative would be an estimated $4.7 billion.
In a paper recently published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,” two dozen interdisciplinary experts comprising the Earth BioGenome Project Working Group explain why the project should be implemented.
Harris Lewin, a professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California-Davis, chairs the working group. Gene Robinson, director of the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois, and W. John Kress, research botanist and curator at the Smithsonian Institution, are co-chairs.
The scientists referred to the significant effect that the Human Genome Project has had on human medicine, veterinary medicine, agricultural bioscience, biotechnology, environmental science, renewable energy, forensics and industrial biotechnology. The Human Genome Project’s benefit to the U.S. economy has been about $1 trillion, according to a 2013 report by the Battelle Memorial Institute.
The Earth BioGenome Project will lay the scientific foundation for a new bio-economy, Lewin said. It could bring innovative solutions to health, environmental, economic and social problems to people around the world, especially in under-developed countries that have significant biodiversity assets, he said.
Advances in technology have made the project feasible. The cost of whole-genome sequencing has declined to about $1,000 for a draft-quality sequence of human-genome size. The cost for a reference-quality assembly of the chromosomes of an average eukaryotic genome is estimated at $30,000.
Advances in computing, data storage and bioinformatics, high-throughput assembly, and characterization of genomes is now feasible. But the researchers acknowledge that innovations in algorithms for aligning, interpreting and visualizing massive amounts of data will be necessary.
The Earth BioGenome Project coalition is preparing partnerships with communities of scientists working on different groups of organisms, such as the Vertebrate Genomes Project, Global Invertebrate Genome Alliance, 10,000 Plant Genomes Project, 5000 Insect Genomes Project, and others.
A pilot program has been initiated in conjunction with the Amazon Bank of Codes and the World Economic Forum. Brazil contains about 10 percent of the world’s biodiversity. The project will offer communities in the Amazon Basin an opportunity to reap a fair share of the economic value generated from the use of biological data and natural assets from their local biomes. If successful the pilot program will serve as the foundation for other countries with rich biodiversity.