In what is an undoubtedly ambitious undertaking, The Darwin Tree of Life project is currently in the process of attempting to sequence the genomes of all UK species. This monumental piece of work is collaboration between several institutions including the Wellcome Sanger institute, the Museum, and the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, London. It is estimated that the project will take between 10 – 20 years to complete, and is expected to cost around £100m for the first five years of research study. With teams working across the country to gather samples, a network of UK institutions will work in together to process thousands of genomes every year.
Genome sequencing is the process of decoding the order of DNA nucleotides, or bases, in a genome (a genome being the genetic material of an organism). This comprises of several ‘letters’, A, C, G and T – adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine – and forms the basis of DNA. Sequencing allows scientists to discover what the various genes do, how different genes are related, and how the various parts of the genome are coordinated. To give you an example of the scale of the task, the human genome is made up of over 3 billion of these letters that all need to be deciphered and studied.
The Darwin Tree of Life project is in actual fact just a small part of a much larger project; The Earth Biogenome project. This particular project aims to sequence, catalogue and characterise the genomes of all eukaryotic life on the entire planet over the next ten years.
As well as offering a window to the past and a fascinating insight as to the evolution of these species, the data collected through both projects presents many opportunities. Developing an understanding of the ways in which animals, plants, fungi and protozoa adapt to changes in their environment could help find solutions to the challenges that our environment will inevitably face over the coming years. Not only will this research help preserve many species from the threat of extinction, but it could also help form the basis of new drugs, fuels and foods. With many of the UK’s species lists now being over 100 years old, this also gives scientists and researchers a chance to re-evaluate and correct it add to data which may now be out of date. Dr Tim Littlewood, head of Life sciences at the museum, says:
“Whether you interested in food, disease or speciation, the history of how every organism on the planet has diverged and adapted to its environment is recorded in its genetic makeup. How you then harness that is dependent on your ability to understand it.”
“Take the fact that salamanders regenerate their limbs. What is the genetic basis of that regeneration? If you could understand that, why wouldn’t you then try to regenerate a human limb? I’m fact, there are already people working on this.”
Efforts to identify and record wildlife are nothing new. The Wellcome Sanger institute recently ran a ’25 genomes for 25 years’ project as a part of their 25 year anniversary celebrations. They aimed to sequence 25 previously un-sequenced species which the general public got to vote for in a kind of ‘I’m a scientist, get me out of here’ initiative to help inspire people to get involved.
An app released three years ago called iRecord allows anyone to be able to contribute their sightings which include GPS acquired coordinates, descriptions and photos. The app has been developed by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology’s mobile applications team and part funded by the CEH/Joint Nature Conservation Committee partnerships supporting the Biological Records Centre. All the data submitted via the app furthers the National Biodiversity Network’s mission to share biological data, and can contribute to conservation, planning, education and further research.
However, this is certainly the biggest, most ambitious, and possibly one of the biggest funded projects yet in this area, and with support from some of the biggest names in the bio-scientific community could pave the way for a while new understanding of how our natural world came to be.
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