Earlham Institute takes part in ambitious 'Tree of Knowledge' to map the genomes of all life in UK

08 November 2019

Earlham Institute (EI) has been awarded over 700k from the Wellcome Trust for the Darwin Tree of Life Project, aiming to produce a complete genomic UK biota as part of the wider Earth Biogenome Project (EBP). The remarkable study will understand all living species to preserve our planet’s rich biodiversity and discover new biomaterials for pharmaceuticals.

Earlham Institute (EI) has been awarded over 700k from the Wellcome Trust for the Darwin Tree of Life Project, aiming to produce a complete genomic UK biota as part of the wider Earth Biogenome Project (EBP). The remarkable study will understand all living species to preserve our planet’s rich biodiversity and discover new biomaterials for pharmaceuticals.

Our wealth of biodiversity on Earth is little understood and under threat, where society relies on ecosystems provided by the natural world. Estimated to take seven to ten years, the Darwin Tree of Life genomics pipeline of 60,000 British species will answer crucial biological questions and fuel new opportunities.

This project will generate an invaluable open-source catalogue of data for research into how organisms develop and respond to pathogens, parasites, environmental change and species’ interactions. Revealing the evolutionary underpinnings of the human genome, our food sources and parasites to unearth processes that generate genomic diversity.

An unparalleled insight into the diverse range of species in the UK will be made possible by £9.4m Wellcome Trust funding to the Darwin Tree of Life Project. This will support the ten UK Institutions, including EI, involved in the project to launch the first phase of sequencing of all the species on the British Isles - collecting and barcoding around 8,000 key British species, and deliver high-quality genomes of 2,000 species.

This data will be of enormous importance to the international scientific community, including those working in life sciences, medicine, alternative energy and climate research. The data will also act as a global resource for public engagement experts, naturalists, citizen scientists, universities and schools.

Prof Neil Hall, Director of EI, said: “Here at EI, through the availability of novel sequencing, and analytical technologies and our advanced expertise, we can study the British species which represent nearly all phyla and more than a third of the families of organisms on Earth. EI’s focus will be on the diversity of single celled organisms. These microbes known as ‘protists’ are hugely diverse and play important roles in the environment such as carbon and nitrogen cycling.

“As the British terrestrial biota has been reconstructed since the last glacial maximum, it is a model for how organisms respond to climate change, competition, range expansion and anthropogenic challenges. Just as the sequencing of the human genome has transformed biomedical research, Darwin Tree of Life and EBP will transform broader bioscience for the next century, leveraging unprecedented economy of scale and fruitful collaboration to deliver reference genomes for all species."

Prof Federica Di Palma, Director of Science at EI, said: “The Darwin Tree of Life is a revolutionary and transformative project which will tell us a great deal of new information about the evolution of the diversity of life on Earth, as well as how to preserve and harness this valuable information for future generations and for the public good.”

This work will act as a launchpad for a larger ambition to, ultimately, sequence all species on Earth. Exploring the genomes of these organisms will give an unprecedented insight into how life on Earth evolved and uncover new genes, proteins and metabolic pathways as well as new drugs for infectious and inherited diseases.

At a time when many species are at risk from climate change and human development, this data will also help characterise, catalogue and support conservation of global biodiversity for future generations. From the small fraction of the Earth’s species that have been sequenced, enormous advances have been made in knowledge and biomedicine. From plants, a number of lifesaving drugs have been discovered and are now being created in the lab – such as artemisinin for malaria and taxol for cancer.

The Darwin Tree of Life partners will work together to identify and collect specimens, set up new pipelines and workflows to process large numbers of species through DNA preparation, sequencing, assembly, gene finding and annotation. New methods will be developed for high-throughput and high-quality assembly of genomes and their annotation, and data will be shared openly through existing data sharing archives and project specific portals.

Professor Mark Blaxter, Lead of the Darwin 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.”

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 with expertise in sample collection, DNA sequencing and data processing we believe that we have the right team to achieve this.  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 or create new bio materials.”

Notes to editors.

Notes to Editor

The Darwin Tree of Life project is part of the Earth Biogenome Project:


The consortium of ten research institutes, museums and associated organisations ultimately aims to sequence the genetic code of 60,000 species that live in the British Isles:

  • Earlham Institute (EI)
  • University of Cambridge
  • 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


For further information, please contact:

Hayley London

Marketing & Communications Officer, Earlham Institute (EI)

  • +44 (0)1603 450 107


About Earlham Institute

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 / @EarlhamInst

About The Wellcome Sanger Institute

The Wellcome Sanger Institute is a world leading genomics research centre. We undertake large-scale research that forms the foundations of knowledge in biology and medicine. We are open and collaborative; our data, results, tools and technologies are shared across the globe to advance science. Our ambition is vast – we take on projects that are not possible anywhere else. We use the power of genome sequencing to understand and harness the information in DNA. Funded by Wellcome, we have the freedom and support to push the boundaries of genomics. Our findings are used to improve health and to understand life on Earth. Find out more at www.sanger.ac.uk or follow us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and on our Blog.

About Wellcome

Wellcome exists to improve health by helping great ideas to thrive. We support researchers, we take on big health challenges, we campaign for better science, and we help everyone get involved with science and health research. We are a politically and financially independent foundation.

About European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI)

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