Ever since the completion of the Human Genome Project, scientists have become increasingly interested in sequencing the genomes of more cultures and populations of humans, as well as various species of animals and organisms to better understand evolution, adaptability and disease susceptibility. In what is perhaps the most ambitious biological proposal since the initial Human Genome Project, an international group of researchers, including researchers from Baylor College of Medicine, seek to sequence every known species that calls planet Earth home. The perspective piece on the project, called the Earth BioGenome Project, appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The unprecedented initiative aims to sequence each of the roughly 1.5 million species of eukaryotes – all living organisms with a clearly defined nucleus – that have been described in modern science, although there are estimated to be upward of 15 million species, most of which have yet to be identified.
“There are several reasons, both philosophical and practical, as to why this global initiative is a crucial one,” said Dr. Stephen Richards, associate professor in the Human Genome Sequencing Center at Baylor. “The Earth BioGenome Project will demonstrate the value of life on earth, provide a comprehensive understanding of the primary genetic data of life, reveal insights into future novel therapies and drug development and connect the large population of urban humans to the ecosystems that exist, and may be in jeopardy, across the world.”
Major advances in sequencing technology have significantly decreased genome sequencing costs, such that the overall cost would be less than that of the Human Genome Project, with an estimated 10-year timeline. Independent of other partner institutions across the globe, the Human Genome Sequencing Center at Baylor currently can execute 30,000 genomes per year.
The greatest challenge facing the initiative is the effort to locate each species and collect samples for sequencing. However, the international research team would access the expansive existing collections curated through museums, zoos and conservatories.
“Natural history museums and botanical gardens will play a key role in the project by providing expertise in the classification of biodiversity and genomic samples to ensure the success of the project,” said Dr. W. John Kress, Distinguished Scientist and Curator of Botany at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution.
“The time for this project on planet Earth is now,” said Richards. “It is important to recognize the value of this data and of all life on earth as we race to cope with habitat changes and loss of resources. The gift of knowledge to all of humanity is the greatest legacy of this initiative, and it is our hope that this paper galvanizes stakeholders to take action to help us realize that legacy.”