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Project to decode ‘all complex life’ on Earth

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A mission to sequence the genome of every known animal, plant, fungus and single-celled organism known collectively as protozoa has been launched by an international team.

The Earth BioGenome Project (EBP) has been described as a “moonshot for biology”.

A key aim is to use the information in efforts to conserve threatened species.

Scientists say clues about how species adapt to environmental change could be hidden in their DNA code.

What will this genome sequencing effort achieve?

The aim is to create an entirely new inventory of life on Planet Earth by reading the genetic code of every organism belonging to a vast group known as eukaryotes – essentially, species made up of multiple cells with their DNA bound inside a nucleus.

As Prof Harris Lewin from University of California, Davis, who is chair of the project pointed out, “only about 3,300 of the 1.5 million known species have had their genomes sequenced”.

“The gaps in our knowledge are a lot bigger than what we know,” he told BBC News. “So we’re not even filling in the pieces of the puzzle; most of the puzzle is empty.”

Prof Lewin said the ambitions of this project were threefold:

  1. Fundamental science: The genomes will be an inventory of knowledge about the biology of life on the planet.
  2. Conservation: To protect endangered species from threats like climate change, scientists want to understand the genetic code that underlies their adaptations to their environment. Species of particular conservation interest, such as the golden eagle, have already been targeted for genome sequencing.
  3. Human welfare: Pinpointing the code for “useful traits” could reveal, for example, what medicinal properties are embedded in a plant’s DNA.

How much will this cost?

The EBP is projected to cost US$5bn (£4bn) – the equivalent to the price tag of the first human genome sequence, which was completed in 2003.

The Wellcome Sanger Institute at Hinxton in Cambridgeshire will lead the UK contribution to the EBP.

The Sanger’s Dr Julia Wilson told BBC news that project’s value to society would be immense, laying “a foundation for all strands of biology and biotechnology”.

“We’re talking about new medicines, new fuels for the future,” she said. “We’re limited at the moment by our imaginations – we can’t even imagine what this would tell us.”

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