W. Tipton / Amy the Nurse / Emily Cho
Earth & Energy

Plan to Create a Genetic Rolodex of Life on Earth Could Save Lives

And the planet, and the economy...

Kristin HouserApril 24th 2018

Running a marathon. Finishing a novel. Dry January.

Think those things are ambitious? Now biologists are giving people who do these things a run for their money: a team of researchers just announced a proposal to sequence the DNA of all 1.5 million known species of complex life on Earth.

Even skydiving to land on a pyramid in heels seems easier than that.

The biologists behind the Earth BioGenome Project (EBP) estimate it will take 10 years and $4.7 billion, but they firmly believe the benefits of this biological moonshot will far outweigh those costs.

Harris A. Lewin, a professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis, is leading the EBP effort. He and 23 other experts calling themselves the EBP Working Group published a paper today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In it, they detail exactly how they plan to map out the biological blueprint of every known species of living thing with a nucleus (those are called eukaryotes, you may recall) and why their project deserves the support of the international community.

“The EBP will lay the scientific foundation for a new bio-economy that has the potential to bring innovative solutions to health, environmental, economic, and social problems to people across the globe, especially in under-developed countries that have significant biodiversity assets,” said Lewin in a UC Davis news release.

So far, scientists have only sequenced the DNA of .2 percent of all known eukaryotic species. That’s helped scientists discover and understand a number of medications that exist in nature, from morphine to aspirin.

What kinds of potentially life-saving compounds remain hidden in the other 99.8 percent of un-sequenced species (or in the estimated 10 million to 15 million unknown species)?

The team believes their project could lead to the discovery of even more drugs. Plus, it could help researchers hone in on new sources of food to nourish the planet’s growing population and new resources for helping us take care of its soil, air, and water.

“The full value of nature, in particular our tropical forests and other biodiversity-rich hot spots, is likely to be grossly underestimated,” the team wrote in their paper.

The project could help us protect species and ecosystems endangered by climate change. A valuable discovery in a species native to a particular nation or region could help that area’s economy, the paper notes.

The researchers behind EBP know this won’t be easy.

Collecting samples of many species will be difficult given the remoteness of their natural habitats, as will figuring out how to store and share the 200 petabytes or so of data the project will likely generate. Securing funding is another challenge (the researchers do point out that, thanks to technological advances, the entire EBP project would cost less than sequencing the first human genome — $4.8 billion in today’s dollars).

The EBP team feels confident it’s worth the effort.

“The greatest legacy of the EBP will be the gift of knowledge — a complete Digital Library of Life that contains the collective biological intelligence of 3.5 billion years of evolutionary history,” the researchers write. “This knowledge will guide future discoveries for generations and may ultimately determine the survival of life on our planet.”

But, hey, don’t feel bad. Running a marathon is ambitious, too. Just not in the same kind of groundbreaking way the EBP will be.

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