A global consortium of scientists is proposing a hugely ambitious project to sequence the genomes of all known complex life on Earth.
The enormous initiative will analyze and catalog the DNA of every documented eukaryotic species—a vast group which includes all plants, animals, fungi and other organisms whose cells have a clearly defined nucleus surrounded by a membrane (the domains of bacteria and archaea—single-celled organisms that have no cell nucleus—are not included.)
A working group of 24 interdisciplinary scientists has outlined the reasons for why the initiative—known as the Earth BioGenome Project (EBP)—should go ahead and how it will be achieved in a perspective paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
In total, there are 1.5 million eukaryotic species on the planet but only 0.2 percent have had their genomes sequenced. The BioGenome Project has the potential to transform our understanding life on Earth, according to the researchers, and pave the way for new innovations in medicine, agriculture, conservation, technology and genomics, among other fields.
It is also expected that the project will help uncover some of the estimated 10-15 million unknown species of eukaryotes, the majority of which are single-celled organisms, insects or small marine animals.
According to the researchers, cataloguing the genetic data of the 1.5 million known species will take 10 years, cost approximately $4.7 billion and require the cooperation of scientists, governments, citizen scientists and students from around the world. The resulting data, which will likely take up more than 200 petabytes of digital storage capacity, will be made freely available for scientific research.
The authors of the proposal compare the EBP to the widely successful Human Genome Project—an international initiative set up to map the entire human genome, which ran from 1990 to 2003. This project had a big impact not only on human medicine, but veterinary science, agricultural bioscience, biotechnology, renewable energy, forensics and environmental science. While it cost an estimated $3.8 billion in today’s money, the project generated around $796 billion in economic activity, according to a 2011 report conducted by the Battelle Memorial Institute.
At present, it costs around $1,000 to sequence the genome of an average-sized vertebrate but this price is expected to fall as technology advances.
"For the first time in history, it is possible to efficiently sequence the genomes of all known species and to use genomics to help discover the remaining 80 to 90 percent of species that are currently hidden from science," the authors wrote in the paper.
Gene Robinson, one of the project's leaders and a professor of entomology at the University of Illinois, said there are various reasons why the project will be beneficial.
“The reasons for undertaking such an ambitious project are many,” he said in a statement. "Genomics has helped scientists develop new medicines and new sources of renewable energy, feed a growing population, protect the environment and support human survival and well-being. The Earth BioGenome Project will give us insight into the history and diversity of life and help us better understand how to conserve it."
Harris A. Lewin, a professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California Davis and chair of the working group, added that the EBP will provide even greater opportunities than the Human Genome Project.
"The EBP will lay the scientific foundation for a new bio-economy that has the potential to bring innovative solutions to health, environmental, economic and social problems to people across the globe, especially in under-developed countries that have significant biodiversity assets," he said in a statement.
The researchers propose that a coordinating council, led by members from the U.S., China, Africa, the European Union, Australia, Canada and Brazil, should be set up, while international protocols will be promoted for storing and sharing data.
"The greatest legacy of the EBP will be a complete digital library of life that will guide future discoveries for generations," Robinson said.