By Prarthana Mitra
In what is being hailed as the moonshot for biology, an ambitious scientific mission called the Earth BioGenome Project (EBP) was inaugurated on Thursday. The decade-long endeavour aims to map the entire genome of around 1.5 million species, tying “all strands of biology and biotechnology” to make potentially groundbreaking discoveries in the field of evolution.
This includes all the complex life forms known to mankind, including the animal, plant, fungus and protozoan kingdom.
Scale and significance
The EBP has earmarked $4.7 billion to build resources for scientists interested in studying terrestrial flora and fauna. Once complete, the EBP would revolutionise the study of biology and genomics.
According to Dr Harris Lewin, Chair of the EBP, “Having the roadmap, the blueprints… will be a tremendous resource for new discoveries, understanding the rules of life, how evolution works, new approaches for the conservation of rare and endangered species, and… new resources for researchers in agricultural and medical fields.”
The study can also generate potential insights on the impact of environmental change on the genetic structure of living systems, treating infections, decelerating the process of ageing, addressing food shortage. Its completion would also give efforts towards the conservation of wildlife and biodiversity a massive boost.
Lewin told Reuters, “(It) will ultimately create a new foundation for biology to drive solutions for preserving biodiversity and sustaining human societies.”
Filling the gaps in knowledge
To put things in perspective, the genomes of around 3,500 complex lifeforms have been sequenced so far and only a hundred of those can be used as “reference” by researchers, a report by UK’s Wellcome Sanger Institute said.
“The gaps in our knowledge are a lot bigger than what we know… so we’re not even filling in the pieces of the puzzle; most of the puzzle is empty,” Lewin told BBC.
In terms of scale and significance, this is reminiscent of the Human Genome Project, which invested 13 years in mapping the human genetic code an concluded in 2013.
Who will undertake this intensive mission?
The mapping work for the “internationally-inspired” project will be conducted at centres across the world.
Sanger Institute, a driving force behind the Human Genome Project, intends to map a whopping 66,000 species. Dr Julia Wilson from the Sanger Institute spoke to BBC, saying, “We’re talking about new medicines, new fuels for the future… we’re limited at the moment by our imaginations — we can’t even imagine what this would tell us,” she added.
A team from China has dibs on sequencing 10,000 plant species, while the Global Ant Genomes Alliance intends to contribute 200 ant genomes to the mammoth project.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.
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