GW researchers embark on $4.7 billion endeavor to sequence DNA of ‘all life on Earth’

Media Credit: Jack Fonseca | Hatchet Photographer

Keith Crandall, the director of the Computational Biology Institute and a professor of biology, is one of two GW researchers who will attempt to analyze the genetic codes of “all life on Earth.”

More than 20 researchers – including two from GW – are preparing to sequence the DNA of plants, animals and other organisms to better understand the evolution of species as a part of a multibillion dollar project.

In a paper titled, “Earth BioGenome Project: Sequencing life for the future of life,” which was published last Monday, researchers proposed a 10-year project – the first of its kind – that aims to analyze the genetic codes of “all life on Earth.” The project, if successful, could lead to the discovery of millions of new species, determine how climate change affects biodiversity and uncover new ways to produce medicine, the report states.

Researchers said the project could shed light on the genetic makeup of species that researchers previously had limited information about. The project, which will cost an estimated $4.7 billion, will sequence a genome of every eukaryotic species – species that have cells with a nucleus enclosed by a membrane, including mammals, fish, plants and several fungi.

The research proposal was inspired by the Human Genome Project, which sequenced the entire human genome, and was completed in 2003, according to a release from the Milken Institute School of Public Health.

Keith Crandall – the director of the Computational Biology Institute and a professor of biology, who is one of the researchers – said the project is the first of its kind and will provide information about how to identify resistance genes, which could help develop more effective drugs for genetic disorders.

He said findings can be used to improve human health and learn how to understand and sustain an ecosystem.

“The 10-year game plan is to get broad, genomic information for comparative genomics and then drill down to particular species, and then as part of that, target some economically important species,” he said.

Stephen Richards, a professor at the Human Genome Sequencing Center at Baylor College of Medicine, who will work on the project, said researchers need to have a better understanding of life on Earth to comprehend what makes each species genetically different. The initiative will allow researchers to create new drugs and antibacterial compounds and attempt to understand which species are closest to extinction, he said.

“Everything on this planet allows us to live – fish in the sea or deserts or termites – this is the place where we live, and we want to know about the place where we live,” Richards said.

Richards said the “information-technology revolution” has brought an influx of new technology that has made the cost of sequencing a genome cheaper, making a such a project more feasible for researchers.

“With these amazing advances in technology, with computers being better, with sequence costs dropping, the world is currently used to doing large projects at this scale,” he said. “Not only has a technology dropped the cost, it’s also made it physically possible to do this.”

Jonathan Coddington, the director of the Global Genome Initiative, said researchers involved in biodiversity and genomics have wanted to attempt such a project for several years because the DNA of the majority of nonhuman species has not yet been sequenced, but did not have access to the appropriate technology.

“It’s part of the genomic revolution of the 21st century,” Coddington said. “Now the sequencing technology is such that you can think about sequencing nonhuman life.”

Gene Robinson, a professor of integrative biology and entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said by sequencing the genomes of all known species, researchers will also be able to discover new medicine and food sources.

“The genome sequences will be used for many different kinds of projects, including helping to catalyze new drug discoveries, improved food and energy sources, and a better understanding of the evolution of life itself,” Robinson said in an email.

Pamela Soltis, the director of the Biodiversity Institute at the University of Florida, said that the idea of mapping every eukaryotic species is both “far-reaching” and new territory for researchers.

“For me, the thought of having genomes for even 1,000 species is thrilling, and increasing this number to many thousands of species would enable so many types of exciting research,” she said.

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