The Earth BioGenome Project was launched yesterday, with the aim of sequencing all complex life on Earth over the next 10 years. The project, dubbed the “Digital Noah’s Ark”, is looking to create a library of genetic information for 1.5 million plants, animals and fungi. Multiple institutes across the globe, including the Earlham Institute based at the Norwich Research Park, are acting together to achieve this monumental task which is expected to cost close to $5 billion.

What’s driving the project?

Conserving Diversity of Nature

First and foremost, creating a genetic library of living organisms draws a line in the sand for biodiversity. Just as it is only possible to track human-related effects on the environment when we have a record of the climate, it’s only possible to track the effect on biodiversity when there is a genetic record of life. Current records are not up to scratch – only 0.2% of complex species have been sequenced. The need to map the tree of life has never been greater. Vertebrate populations have seen an estimated 58% decline between 1970-2012, according to the Living Planet Index. This loss of biodiversity is on a downward spiral, with 50% of existing species expected to become extinct over the next 30 years. To reverse human-related effects on the diversity of life, the first step is to generate a record to identify patterns and correlations between human activities and biodiversity. Once this is in place, informed innovation and initiatives will provide the springboard to breathing life back into nature.

Platform for Innovation?

The Earth BioGenome Project is set to spark an explosion of ideas and technologies in a range of sectors, including Life Science and Digital Biology. The Human Genome Project, which mapped the human genetic library, spawned an entirely new field of medicine and drew in $1 trillion of direct economic benefit. Initially, innovation on the digital front is required to actually process and store the 1 exabyte (1 billion gigabytes) that will be generated during the project. Once completed, the huge repository of genomes will provide a previously-inaccessible source of information that could hold an untold number of natures secrets. All of today’s innovations in Life Sciences and Biotech, from drug discovery to craft beer to biofuel, have been made from the first recipe of a 500-page cookbook. Imagine what could be achieved with the other 499 pages. The huge library will also provide the foundations for other innovation platforms. The potential of the Synthetic Biology market is entirely dependent on the breadth of genetic data to build from. Producing new biomaterials and scaling-up to meet industrial demand is completely dependent on knowledge and manipulation of the genetic code. Furthermore, the importance of fungi to the microbiome is gaining recognition, and understanding the diversity and interactions between them could be crucial in unlocking a boom of new drugs and therapies.

Reaping the Rewards of Technology

Technological advances in sequencing are at the heart of Earth BioGenome Project. From these advances, sequencing costs have dwindled to $1000 per genome compared to the $2.7bn cost of the Human Genome Project, making the project financially feasible. Advances in digital biology is allowing the assembly, categorisation and storage of trillions of pieces of genetic code. Novel sequencing technologies, such as the MinION, have sped up sequencing to the point where the human genome, which took 13 years to first sequence, can now be sequenced in a day. Automation of the sequencing process have also contributed to lower costs, faster processing and increased accuracy. With the cost, simplicity and speed of existing technologies constantly improving, now is as good a time as any to face up to this monumental task.