Advances in biotechnology over the past decade have led to rapid advances in areas such as medicine, nutrition, ecology, and neuroscience. With this progress comes the ambition for even more progress. For example, if we know that we are able to produce plants in such a way that they get more food, we may be able to develop them even better. Building a brain-machine interface that can read basic thoughts could mean that another interface could eventually read complex thoughts.
One of the fields on which progress seems to be moving very fast is genomics, and with this progress ambitions have grown just as fast. The Earth BioGenome project, which aims to sequence the DNA of all known eukaryotic creatures on Earth, is a shining example of progress and ambition.
A recent article in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science published new details about the project. It is estimated to cost 1
These statistics sound huge, but in reality they are small compared to the history of genome sequencing up to this point. Take the Human Genome Project, a publicly funded project to sequencing the first complete human genome. The effort lasted over ten years – it started in 1990 and was completed in 2003 – and cost a total of about $ 2.7 billion ($ 4.8 billion)
Now, just 15 years later, the Earth BioGenome project aims to: sequencing, cataloging and analyzing the genomes of of all known eukaryotic species on Earth in about the same time and for about the same cost
"Eukaryotes" refers to all plants, animals and unicellular organisms – all living things except bacteria and archaea (they are looked after by the Earth Microbiome Project). It is estimated that there are between 10-15 million eukaryotic species, from rhinos to chinchillas to fleas (and much less). Of the 2.3 million of these we have documented, we have sequenced less than 15,000 of their genomes (most of which were microbes).
As impressive as it is that scientists can do that, you may wonder, what's the point? There is a clear advantage to studying the human genome, but what will we get out of decoding the DNA of a rhinoceros or flea?
Earth BioGenome will essentially allow scientists to make a high-resolution, digital genetic snapshot of known life Earth. "The greatest legacy of [the project] will be a complete digital library of life that will lead to future discoveries for generations," said Gene Robinson, one of the project leaders, as well as a professor of entomology and the director of the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois
The estimated profitability of the Human Genome Project was 141 to 1 – and that's just the financial side of things. The project has been instrumental in driving the affordable genomics we know today, an area designed to accelerate the discovery of disease-causing genetic mutations and help diagnose and treat them. New gene editing tools, such as CRISPR, have emerged and may someday be able to cure genetic diseases.
Extrapolate these yields over millions of species, and then the knowledge gained – and the tangible benefits of this insight – is likely to be significant. Genome research on crops, for example, has already resulted in plants that grow faster, produce more food, and are more resilient to pests or thunderstorms. Researchers can find new medicines or find better ways to develop organisms for production or energy. They will be able to make complicated discoveries about how and when different species evolved – information that has been buried in the depths of history so far.
They will create a digital gene bank of the species of the world. What other useful genes will lurk there to inspire a new generation of synthetic biologists?
"[In the future] Designing genomes will be a personal thing, a new art form, as creative as painting or sculpture, few of the new creations will be masterpieces, but many will delight creators in our fauna and flora The well-known physicist Freeman Dyson said in 2007.
Just over ten years later, his vision of what would have been closer to science fiction not too long ago is approaching reality. Earth BioGenome would provide the biologists of the future with a significant part of the Earth's genetic range.
But it is not finished yet. In addition to financing, the subtleties of the project need to be specified. One of the biggest questions is how exactly will scientists take on the gigantic task of collecting intact DNA samples from all known species on Earth. Some museum copies are used, but many have probably not been preserved so that the DNA could produce a high quality genome. An important source of samples will be the Global Genome Biodiversity Network.
"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." Robinson said. "The Earth BioGenome Project will give us an insight into the history and diversity of life and help us better understand how we can sustain it."
Credit from: Destinyweddingstudio / Shutterstock.com