DToL is part of a larger global endeavour to sequence the genomes of all eukaryotic life on Earth. That means mapping out the entire DNA sequence for every animal, plant, fungus and protist.
Professor Hall suggests that it’s only by sampling the tree of life in this way that we will finally be able to answer the important question of what genes really do.
“Because protists are so diverse, you can look at all branches on the tree of life and ask ‘ok, where do we see photosynthesis and what genes do we associate with that’,” he explains. “Some protists have lost their mitochondria. You can ask ‘ok, they’ve lost those, what else have they lost, what genes don’t they need’?
“Once we’ve sampled all of the tree of life, we can start to see what genes always co-occur with each other and how that relates to structures in the cells we see, or what metabolic pathways they are associated with.
“The only way you can really do that is by really deep sampling of biodiversity.”
It’s a massive task but the dividends could be equally huge.
“There are all sorts of examples in protists,” says Hall. “RNA editing was discovered in trypanosomes. No one thought by looking at an organism that was 2 billion years diverged from animals that you would learn something about animal life, but there are many examples like that.”
Low shares the same excitement for the diverse applications that could arise from this project. “We know so little about so many protists that are out there,” he says. “But in most cases, nobody has looked yet.”
Protists are challenging to collect, isolate and generate reliable genetic data from. The Hall Group are unperturbed by these challenges and are instead motivated by the unknown potential benefits from studying these organisms.
“It’s a bit like saying to Darwin ‘what do you hope to discover by collecting all those finches?’” explains Professor Hall.
“He didn’t set out to discover speciation. He collected samples and analysed the data when he got back to Down house. Part of it is generating data so that you can generate a theory, and then test that theory.
“There’s all sorts of things that we don’t know, but we have a fantastic opportunity to find out.”