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SYFY WIRE genetics

5,000 scientists are writing a genetic encyclopedia of everything!

We're writing the story of life on Earth one nucleotide at a time.

By Cassidy Ward
DNA gel close up GETTY

In 1990, scientists embarked on a $3 billion project to sequence the human genome, that was completed 13 years later, in 2003. Since then, genome sequencing has become significantly more efficient and cost effective. Gathering genetic data from species of plants, animals, and microbes has become almost common place, but there are a lot of species out there.

Current estimates put the total number of species on Earth somewhere between 12 and 15 million. Of those, only 1.84 million have been classified. In terms of genetic data, we’re currently leaving a lot on the table. That’s where the Earth BioGenome Project (EBP) comes in.

Launched in November of 2018, the project aims to sequence and store genomes for all of the classified eukaryotic life on Earth over the next 10 years, according to a recent paper published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The project includes more than 5,000 scientists from all over the world, hailing from 43 affiliated programs. Dr. Camila Mazzoni, current chair of the European node of the EBP, spoke to SYFY WIRE about it.

“There are a lot of species that we don’t even know exist, and the ones we do know of, there’s a lot we don’t know about them,” Mazzoni said.

As of March 2021, only about 6,500 species had been sequenced and collected in the International Nucleotide Sequence Database, and a majority of those don’t meet the high standards set out by the EBP. The aim is not only to gather genomes for all species, but to ensure that they are high quality, error free, reference level data.

The project hopes that by having that information at our fingertips, we’ll be better equipped to understand how species interact with one another, how disease moves throughout populations, and how species adapt to an ever-changing world driven by anthropogenic climate change.

“We’ll gain a lot of decision-making tools for what to do when we see a crisis coming,” Mazzoni said.

The 10-year goal of sequencing all classified eukaryotic life is an ambitious one, and the project plans to leverage scientists already doing genetic work all around the world to get it done. Even then, whether they meet the proposed timeline or not, the nature of the work is necessarily ongoing.

“We hope that we will have representation of the entire biodiversity in 10 years, representing all different types of organisms from all different parts of the world. That’s what I think we’ll reach in 10 years, not the entirety of biodiversity, but a representation of it,” Mazzoni said.

Once that first phase of the work is done, the project will continue refining and adding to its data for the foreseeable future. Mazzoni estimated that the project will likely continue for many decades. One of the particular challenges is in the nature of genomes across different species. While a single vertebrate might be a good representation of its species, that isn’t always the case with other forms of life.

“If you look at invertebrates or microscopic protozoa or microalgae, the gone is different even with a species. In a way, you would need to sequence many different specimens in order to represent the genome for some species,” Mazzoni said.

All things considered, the project has their work cut out for them, but even cataloguing a fraction of the biodiversity present on our planet will give us clearer insight into how ecosystems behave, how human interactions impact them, and what we can do to mitigate negative consequences. It will also be a valuable resource for future scientists.

The EBP requires that all genetic sequences be uploaded to three molecular database repositories, located in the United States, Europe, and Japan. Once there, with the exception of some limitations around commercial use, the data will be freely available to everyone for study and experimentation.

The ultimate aim of the project is to maintain an international scientific collaboration for the benefit of the whole world. It’s a big goal but it’s worth doing. After all, we can’t adequately use our tools if we don’t even know what we have available.