Purple Bar moth is 1,000th species sequenced in landmark project

23 November 2023
Closeup on the purple bar moth

An ambitious project to sequence the genomes of all eukaryotic species found in Britain and Ireland has passed a major milestone.

Over 1,000 genomes have now been produced as part of the Darwin Tree of Life project - a collaboration between ten leading research organisations and funded by Wellcome.

While the list of 1,000 species includes animals, plants, fungi and single-celled organisms called protists, the 1,000th species was Cosmorhoe ocellata, a moth commonly called ‘The Purple Bar’. All of the data generated are available freely and openly to researchers anywhere in the world.

The Darwin Tree of Life project aims to use DNA data to understand how the diversity of life on Earth evolved, explore the biology of organisms and ecosystems, aid conservation efforts, and provide new tools for medicine and biotechnology.

It is one of several initiatives across the globe working towards the ultimate goal of sequencing all complex life on Earth, in a venture known as the Earth BioGenome Project.

Professor Mark Blaxter, Head of the Tree of Life programme at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: “It’s a huge achievement to pass this milestone - and it has only been possible through the remarkable collaboration, hard work, and innovation of people from all of the project partners over the first four years of our groundbreaking project.

“All of us are connected by the common thread of our shared DNA, and DNA connects us to all life. Genomics allows us to explore those connections and look back through evolutionary time at the tree of life.

“The outputs and impacts from the Darwin Tree of Life will contribute to open conversations about how genomic knowledge can help us start to tackle some of the biggest problems facing our societies and the natural world today.”

Taxonomic tree of the organisms analysed, coloured by major group. Graphic by Mark Blaxter for DToL. Organism silhouettes from PhyloPic CCBY-4.0.
Taxonomic tree of the organisms analysed so far by DToL.

There are estimated to be about 70,000 eukaryotic species - organisms whose cells have a nucleus - in Britain and Ireland.

While today’s milestone represents only a fraction of the total, much of the work of the past 4 years has involved the development of protocols and pipelines required to generate reference quality genomes from never-before-sequenced species.

As a partner in the Darwin Tree of Life project, the Earlham Institute is applying its expertise in single-cell genomics, bioinformatics, and data management to develop robust pipelines for both sequencing novel organisms and enabling the wider community to share genomic data in a findable, accessible, interoperable and reproducible way.

Experts in research software engineering and data science at the Institute are providing COPO to the Darwin Tree of Life community - a resource that helps to manage the crucial metadata associated with genome sequencing projects, ensuring that it is accessible and shareable long into the future.

COPO is central to the project and has been further extended to the European Reference Genome Atlas project (ERGA), another initiative under the Earth Biogenome Project umbrella.

Professor Neil Hall, Director of the Earlham Institute, said: “Cataloguing genomes is crucial to understanding how sequences of DNA have given rise to the incredible diversity of life on Earth.

“Ultimately, it’ll transform our understanding of biology and evolution, help us to better protect biodiversity, and potentially generate new and unforeseen benefits for society, such as technology or even medicines.”

Species analysed by the Darwin Tree of Life project so far have come from across the many branches of the tree of life, from single celled organisms (also known as protists) to the more familiar plants, fungi, and animals.

The Darwin Tree of Life partners are the Earlham Institute, EMBL-EBI, Marine Biological Association, Natural History Museum, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Royal Botanic Garden Kew, and the Wellcome Sanger Institute, along with teams at the Universities of Cambridge, Edinburgh and Oxford.

Notes to editors.

About the Earlham Institute

The Earlham Institute is a hub of life science research, training, and innovation focused on understanding the natural world through the lens of genomics.

Embracing the full breadth of life on Earth, our scientists specialise in developing and testing the latest tools and approaches needed to decode living systems and make predictions about biology.

The Earlham Institute is based within the Norwich Research Park and is one of eight institutes that receive strategic funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), part of UKRI, as well as support from other research funders.

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