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Earlham Institute branches out to Darwin Tree of Life

Darwin Tree of Life Project is an epic DNA sequencing project. Copyright: Earlham Institute
News from: Earlham Institute

The Earlham Institute (EI) will be part of the epic DNA sequencing project which aims to decipher the genetic code of 66,000 species in the UK, led by the Wellcome Sanger Institute, as part of a global effort to sequence the genomes of all 1.5 million known species of animals, plants, protozoa and fungi on Earth.

The UK arm, known as the Darwin Tree of Life Project (DTOL), has officially launched in London alongside the global effort, the Earth BioGenome Project (EBP).

Preserving and encouraging biodiversity is essential to all living things. As humans, we are part of a natural ecosystem where we rely on our environment to give us oxygen to breathe, soak up carbon emissions from the atmosphere and balance the ecological food-chain. To protect our planet, we need to ensure that biodiversity has the resilience to withstand the mounting pressures of climate change and an ever-growing population. 

Pivotal to the Institute's strategy is understanding how to harness biodiversity to improve agriculture. The Darwin Tree of Life project will provide a wealth of information of thousands of species which will inform EI scientists how genomes have adapted to specific environments and be utilised in, for example, crop plants. The Tree of Life dataset will also provide a basis to understand how genes work in a network to give rise to specific traits (or phenotypes) such as disease resistance or the ability to survive in extreme environments. 

Director of Earlham Institute Prof Neil Hall, said: “The whole concept of the DTOL project is central to our core strength in harnessing ‘big data’ to bring a new understanding to how organisms and ecosystems work - and there are few research Institutes as well suited to contribute to this. Our expertise in assembly and network biology should ensure we can derive biological understanding from the datasets that will come from the UK-wide species project. 

“I am really excited about EI being part of this project as it complements our data-driven biology and technology focus, with our specific interests in biodiversity and agriculture. There are huge opportunities here for academics and industrial scientists to make major breakthroughs and we hope to ensure that as well as generating an important dataset, we also uncover new biology by applying our advanced skills in computational analysis, functional genomics and synthetic biology.”

A greater understanding of Earth’s biodiversity and the responsible stewarding of its resources are among the most crucial scientific and social challenges of the new millennium. The overcoming of these challenges requires new scientific knowledge of evolution and interactions among millions of the planet’s organisms.

Director of Science Prof Federica di Palma, said: “This project not only has the potential to tell us a lot about the evolution of the diversity of life on Earth, as well as preserving valuable genetic information for future generations, but also to harness this data for the public good. This information will enable us to better protect ecosystems and understand how they function. We will also be able to mine genomic data for valuable new materials and medicines as well as new genetic diversity that can be used to protect crops from disease or climate change.”

Professor Melanie Welham, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) Executive Chair, added: “The Darwin Tree of Life project represents a significant investment, reflecting the importance of this study. The Earlham Institute, one of BBSRC’s strategically funded institutes, will be playing an important part in this epic DNA sequencing project. As part of UK Research and Innovation - BBSRC continues to support investment in genomics, it helps us understand fundamental aspects of biology and to improve crops and livestock by exploiting knowledge of genetic diversity. This is an exciting project that has real potential to underpin future innovation.”

The Sanger Institute will serve as the genomics hub in the UK, and alongside EI, will collaborate with the Natural History Museum in London, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Edinburgh Genomics, University of Edinburgh, EMBL-EBI and others in sample collection, DNA sequencing, assembling and annotating genomes and storing the data.

The Darwin Tree of Life project is estimated to cost approximately £100 million over the first five years, and the sequencing of 66,000 species’ genomes will take around 10 years.

The Darwin Tree of Life project is now possible due to recent and expected advances in sequencing and information technology that will enable the reading and interpretation of thousands of species’ genomes each year by the Sanger Institute and its partner institutions across the UK. All of the data will be stored in public domain databases and made freely available for research use.

Sequencing the species in the UK and worldwide will revolutionise our understanding of biology and evolution, bolster efforts to conserve, help protect and restore biodiversity, and in return create new benefits for society and human welfare. 

ENDS


Tags: systems biology genetics Earlham Institute fundamental bioscience press release