Decoding Life on Earth

01 November 2018

The Earth BioGenome Project (EBP), a global effort to sequence the genetic code of all 1.5 million known animal, plant, protozoan and fungal species on Earth, officially launches today (1 November) as key scientific partners and funders from around the globe gather in London, UK to discuss progress in organising and funding the project.

The Earth BioGenome Project (EBP), a global effort to sequence the genetic code of all 1.5 million known animal, plant, protozoan and fungal species on Earth, officially launches today (1 November) as key scientific partners and funders from around the globe gather in London, UK to discuss progress in organising and funding the project.

The Earth BioGenome Project will ultimately create a new foundation for biology to drive solutions for preserving biodiversity and sustaining human societies.

The EBP aims to sequence, catalogue and categorise the genomes of all of Earth’s eukaryotic* biodiversity over a period of ten years. The projected cost of the EBP is $4.7 billion. Accounting for inflation, the Human Genome Project today would cost $5 billion.

The EBP will be made possible by recent and future advances in sequencing and information technology that will enable the reading and interpretation of tens of thousands of species’ genomes each year by partner institutions across the globe.  

The Earlham Institute is a partner of the EBP’s UK effort, known as the Darwin Tree of Life Project, which also launches today. EI’s expertise in vertebrate genomics, coupled with their advanced technology platforms and bioinformatics techniques will contribute to the task of sequencing 66,000 species in the UK, led by the Wellcome Sanger Institute. EI is already putting this into action as part of international conservation genomics projects aiming to rescue endangered species and boost biodiversity against economic and political backdrops. 

EI’s Director of Science Prof Federica di Palma, said: “Our conservation work with international partners, and more recently our GCRF work in Colombia is demonstrating how equally important biodiversity is to the climate change context in both developing, and developed countries like the UK. As these countries adapt to new policy landscapes and evolving political challenges, there has never been a greater need for academics, NGOs, businesses and decision-makers to join forces to collectively characterise, conserve and manage earth’s species for sustainable economic growth and social well-being. The Global impact BRIDGE Colombia network is a great example of how to facilitate crucial dialogue and collaborative partnerships around these pressing environmental issues.”

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. The overcoming of these challenges requires new scientific knowledge of evolution and interactions among millions of the planet’s organisms.

Currently, fewer than 3,500, or about 0.2 per cent of all known eukaryotic species have had their genome sequenced. By sequencing all genes of all life, it will revolutionise our understanding of biology and evolution, bolster efforts to conserve, help protect and restore biodiversity, and in return create new benefits for society and human welfare. 

Professor Harris Lewin, University of California, Davis, United States and Chair of the Earth BioGenome Project, said: “The Earth BioGenome Project can be viewed as infrastructure for the new biology. Having the roadmap, the blueprints for all living species of eukaryotes will be a tremendous resource for new discoveries, understanding the rules of life, how evolution works, new approaches for the conservation of rare and endangered species, and provide new resources for researchers in agricultural and medical fields.”

The EBP has made extraordinary progress in the last year leading up to the official launch. So far,  a collaboration of 17 institutions from across the globe, including the USA, United Kingdom, China, Germany, Denmark and Brazil, has come together and signed a Memorandum of Understanding** that commits each institution to work together toward the common goals of the project.

The amount of biological data that will be produced from this project is expected to be more than the data accumulated by Twitter, YouTube or astronomy. All of the data will be stored in public domain databases and made freely available for research use. The project’s participants have agreed in the EBP Memorandum of Understanding that data access will be open to all while conforming to the Convention on Biodiversity and the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing. 

This project will build on recent achievements of sequencing sets of species’ genomes for the first time. For example, the Vertebrate Genomes Project, which aims to sequence the genetic code of all extant vertebrates, released the genomes of 14 species, including bat and fish species, the Canadian Lynx and Kakapo***.

To mark the 25th anniversary of the Wellcome Sanger Institute, the institute and its collaborators sequenced the genomes of 25 species found in the United Kingdom (UK) for the first time****, including Red and Grey squirrels, the European robin, Fen raft spider and Blackberry. The completed genome sequences will lead to future studies to understand the biodiversity of the UK and aid the conservation and understanding of UK species.

The Sanger Institute will lead the UK contribution to the EBP by sequencing all 66,000 eukaryotic species across the British Isles, in a new project known as the Darwin Tree of Life Project. The Sanger has committed to creating a new programme of research, called the Tree of Life programme, to fulfil this mission and will work alongside partners at the Natural History Museum in London, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Earlham Institute, EMBL-EBI and Edinburgh Genomics at the University of Edinburgh.

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.” 

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 biomaterials.”

Notes to editors

For more information, please contact:

Hayley London

Marketing & Communications Officer, Earlham Institute (EI)

  • +44 (0)1603 450 107

hayley.london@earlham.ac.uk

Eukaryotic species are defined as organisms whose cells have a nucleus enclosed within membranes, unlike prokaryotes, which are unicellular organisms that lack a membrane-bound nucleus, mitochondria or any other membrane-bound organelle (Bacteria and Archaea).

The Earth BioGenome Project (EBP) aims to sequence, catalogue and categorise the genomes of all of Earth’s eukaryotic biodiversity over a period of ten years. The projected cost of the EBP is $4.7 billion. Accounting for inflation, the Human Genome Project today would cost $5 billion.

* For more information on the 25 Genomes Project news story, visit: https://www.sanger.ac.uk/news/view/25-uk-species-genomes-sequenced-first-time

Funding:
The Wellcome Sanger Institute will use core funding from Wellcome to introduce a research programme in Tree of Life genomics. Further funding support for sample collection, sequencing machines, data infrastructure is required.

The Earth BioGenome Project activities are currently being funded by the participating organisations as well as private foundations, governmental organisations and crowd-funding sources. Participating institutions are committed to raising funds to complete the project in 10 years. Significant funds have already been raised to meet the $600 million goal necessary to complete Phase 1 of the project, to produce approximately 9000 reference quality genomes across all taxonomic families.

Appendix of quotes from partners:

Dr Tim Littlewood, Head of Life Sciences at the Natural History Museum, London, said: “The Natural History Museum is proud to be collaborating with the Wellcome Sanger Institute on the Darwin Tree of Life project. It is hoped that together we can uncover the blueprints of the diversity of UK life, which will effectively re-write what we know about these species. By comparing those blueprints within and between species we can understand the genetic diversity of fauna and flora from the UK and beyond. Sequencing the genomes of all life will reveal aspects of evolution we’ve not even dreamt of.”

Professor Mark Blaxter, of Edinburgh Genomics and the University of Edinburgh, said: “The launch of the Darwin Tree of Life project is the realisation of a longstanding dream. Having the full genomes of all the organisms we share the planet with will change our ability to understand and care for them. The UK environmental and evolutionary research community has for many years been leading the way in sequencing the DNA of diverse species, and this revolutionary project will transform the science we can do.”

Dr Paul Flicek, a senior scientist and team leader at EMBL’s European Bioinformatic Institute, 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.”

Selected websites:

Earth BioGenome Project

www.earthbiogenome.org

Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology
https://www.igb.illinois.edu/

The Earlham Institute (EI) is a world-leading research Institute focusing on the development of genomics and computational biology. EI is based within the Norwich Research Park and is one of eight institutes that receive strategic funding from Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council (BBSRC) - £5.43m in 2017/18 - as well as support from other research funders. - as well as support from other research funders. EI operates a National Capability to promote the application of genomics and bioinformatics to advance bioscience research and innovation.

EI offers a state of the art DNA sequencing facility, unique by its operation of multiple complementary technologies for data generation. The Institute is a UK hub for innovative bioinformatics through research, analysis and interpretation of multiple, complex data sets. It hosts one of the largest computing hardware facilities dedicated to life science research in Europe. It is also actively involved in developing novel platforms to provide access to computational tools and processing capacity for multiple academic and industrial users and promoting applications of computational Bioscience. Additionally, the Institute offers a training programme through courses and workshops, and an outreach programme targeting key stakeholders, and wider public audiences through dialogue and science communication activities.

www.earlham.ac.uk

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.

BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by government, BBSRC invested £469 million in world-class bioscience in 2016-17. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

The UC Davis Genome Center serves the Omics needs of a large community of scientists, government and industry partners. State-of-the-art facilities for genome sequencing, gene expression analysis, an NIH-funded metabolomics core, proteomics and bioinformatics support research activities of more than full-time 40 faculty members involved in fundamental and translational research on agriculture, the environment and human health. The Genome Center is the current administrative home of the Earth BioGenome Project. http://genomecenter.ucdavis.edu/

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is a world famous scientific organisation, internationally respected for its outstanding collections as well as its scientific expertise in plant diversity, conservation and sustainable development in the UK and around the world. Kew Gardens is a major international and a top London visitor attraction. Kew’s 132 hectares of landscaped gardens, and Wakehurst, Kew’s Wild Botanic Garden, attract over 2.1 million visits every year. Kew was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2003 and celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2009. Wakehurst is home to Kew's Millennium Seed Bank, the largest wild plant seed bank in the world. Kew receives approximately one third of its funding from Government through the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and research councils. Further funding needed to support Kew’s vital work comes from donors, membership and commercial activity including ticket sales.

The Natural History Museum exists to inspire a love of the natural world and unlock answers to the big issues facing humanity and the planet. It is a world-leading science research centre, and through its unique collection and unrivalled expertise it is tackling issues such as food security, eradicating diseases and managing resource scarcity. The Natural History Museum is the most visited natural history museum in Europe and the top science attraction in the UK; we welcome more than 4.5 million visitors each year and our website receives over 500,000 unique visitors a month. People come from around the world to enjoy our galleries and events and engage both in-person and online with our science and educational activities through innovative programmes and citizen science projects. http://www.nhm.ac.uk/

Edinburgh Genomics is world renowned for the provision of advanced genomics services. Rooted in the University of Edinburgh, it produces high-quality, high-volume data for global collaborators and customers across academia, government and industry. Investment in the latest genome sequencing technologies have enabled the organization to lead the way for genomics in Scotland, providing a richer picture of genetic diversity in evolution and ecology and improved patient diagnosis and disease management. With trusted experts and the confidence to deliver high quality results, Edinburgh Genomics is rapidly changing global research and future patient care. http://genomics.ed.ac.uk

The European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI) is a global leader in the storage, analysis and dissemination of large biological datasets. We help scientists realise the potential of ‘big data’ by enhancing their ability to exploit complex information to make discoveries that benefit humankind.

We are at the forefront of computational biology research, with work spanning sequence analysis methods, multi-dimensional statistical analysis and data-driven biological discovery, from plant biology to mammalian development and disease.

We are part of EMBL and are located on the Wellcome Genome Campus, one of the world’s largest concentrations of scientific and technical expertise in genomics. Website: www.ebi.ac.uk

Pacific Biosciences of California, Inc. (NASDAQ:PACB) offers sequencing systems to help scientists resolve genetically complex problems. Based on its novel Single Molecule, Real-Time (SMRT®) technology, Pacific Biosciences’ products enable: de novo genome assembly to finish genomes in order to more fully identify, annotate and decipher genomic structures; full-length transcript analysis to improve annotations in reference genomes, characterize alternatively spliced isoforms in important gene families, and find novel genes; targeted sequencing to more comprehensively characterize genetic variations; and real-time kinetic information for epigenome characterization. Pacific Biosciences’ technology provides high accuracy, ultra-long reads, uniform coverage, and the ability to simultaneously detect epigenetic changes. PacBio® sequencing systems, including consumables and software, provide a simple, fast, end-to-end workflow for SMRT Sequencing. More information is available at www.pacb.com

The Wellcome Sanger Institute is one of the world's leading genome centres. Through its ability to conduct research at scale, it is able to engage in bold and long-term exploratory projects that are designed to influence and empower medical science globally. Institute research findings, generated through its own research programmes and through its leading role in international consortia, are being used to develop new diagnostics and treatments for human disease. To celebrate its 25th year in 2018, the Institute is sequencing 25 new genomes of species in the UK. Find out more at www.sanger.ac.uk or follow @sangerinstitute

Wellcome exists to improve health for everyone by helping great ideas to thrive. We’re a global charitable foundation, both politically and financially independent. We support scientists and researchers, take on big problems, fuel imaginations and spark debate. www.wellcome.ac.uk