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The audacious plan to catalog all life on Earth

The multibillion-dollar Earth BioGenome Project is being called a "moonshot for biology."
Rainforest View - Red Eyed Tree Frog
The Earth BioGenome Project aims to create a "“Digital Library of Life" that contains the genetic blueprint of every plant, animal and fungus known to science.Mark Kostich / Getty Images

An international team of scientists is finalizing plans for the Earth BioGenome Project, a multibillion-dollar “moonshot for biology” that will assemble the genetic blueprint of every plant, animal and fungus known to science — some 1.5 million species in all.

The giant Nepenthes rajah pitcher plant that can trap a rat? It’s on the list, along with all of the more familiar plants. The dung cannon fungus that launches spores faster than a rocket? Check. The yellow-spotted millipede that makes its own cyanide? Ditto.

“Unimaginable biological secrets are held in the genomes of the millions of known and unknown organisms on our planet,” the scientists say in a recently published description of the 10-year, $4.7-billion project. “What really drove us is this great unknown,” says Harris Lewin, chairman of the project’s working group and an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Davis.

A red-lipped batfish near the Galapagos Islands.Reinhard Dirscherl / Getty Images

Uncovering this “dark matter” of biology, as the researchers call it, should yield fresh insights into the diversity of life on Earth — while bringing new foods, drugs and materials and helping pinpoint strategies for saving species at risk of extinction.

Despite concerns over the cost and logistics, independent researchers agree on the project’s merits. “Plenty of organisms produce new and interesting chemistry that we take advantage of, or that we rely on,” says Stephen Smith, a University of Michigan evolutionary biologist who is not associated with the project. “There’s a heck of a lot that’s still out there that we have no idea about.”

Jo Handelsman, a microbiologist and genomic sequencing pioneer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who likewise is not associated with the project, concurs. “The thrill of sequence information is that you don’t know what you’re going to find,” she says. “I think probably the bigger payoffs will be things that we can’t even anticipate.”

A planet’s worth of untapped potential

Researchers have already isolated hundreds of medicines from plants, snails, sponges and other living things. And the $3-billion Human Genome Project that mapped our entire collection of DNA led to the discovery of thousands of disease-linked genes and the development of tests for many of them as well as drugs to treat the diseases they cause.

So far, that project has yielded a return on investment of nearly $1 trillion.

The Earth BioGenome project will dwarf these earlier efforts by sequencing, cataloging and characterizing the genomes of all known eukaryotes, which include all living organisms other than certain microbes that lack a cell nucleus.

To do this, participating scientists will scour collections from zoos, botanical gardens and museums, isolate other species through field expeditions, and then use high-speed, automated DNA sequencing machines in their labs and at major sequencing centers around the world to characterize the organisms’ genomes.

The sequences will be used to create a “Digital Library of Life that contains the collective biological intelligence of 3.5 billion years of evolutionary history,” the researchers say in the written description. When possible, Lewin says, DNA as well as live cells from organisms will be frozen to enable future sequencing, research and, potentially, the restoration of lost species.

Saving species from extinction

Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals, with climate change and habitat loss causing species to disappear 1,000 times faster than the normal background rate. Given the rapid pace of extinction, the project is prioritizing 23,000 species listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as either threatened or endangered.

For each species, the project aims to sequence 10 individual organisms to better understand the remaining population’s genetic diversity. The resulting genetic data could bring more effective conservation plans by revealing how some organisms are able to adapt to climate change — or how genetic mutations may be threatening to speed their demise.

Likewise, the data could provide new insights about how flora and fauna interact and help scientists stave off the collapse of entire ecosystems.

Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula) with trapped fly
A fly caught by a Venus flytrap.marcouliana / Getty Images/iStockphoto

People may not see the value in sequencing the genome of a microscopic kind of algae or fungus, but Lewin says even seemingly inconsequential organisms may play a pivotal role in food webs on land and in the oceans. “If the bottom of the food chain and the plankton starts disappearing, eventually you’re going to lose whales too,” he says.

Knowing an organism’s genome could help bring it back from extinction, at least theoretically. But rather than actual “de-extincting” lost species, leaders of the project say it is more likely to help keep critically endangered animals like the California condor and eastern lowland gorilla from going extinct.

Join the crowd?

Leaders of the project say it is roughly one-third of the way to its goal to raise $600 million for the first phase of DNA sequencing. They hope to announce the main sponsors of the private-public partnership at a formal launch to be held in the United Kingdom in November.

In the meantime, Lewin says, letters of support have poured in from around the world, ranging from high school students to research institutes in China, Chile and Saudi Arabia. “The public imagination on this has been incredible,” he says.

A Barn Owl comes in to land during a display at the African Bird of Prey Sanctuary in Umlaas Road, 60 km (37 miles) west of Durban
A barn owl comes in to land at a bird sanctuary in South Africa.Rogan Ward / Reuters file

To capitalize on that interest, the project leaders are considering crowdsourcing some of the funds. For $1,000, people could sponsor the genome of a fish or insect, say, and attach their name to the sequence data through a sort of virtual plaque.

“That probably is funding that wouldn’t go to science otherwise,” Handelsman says, “so I think it’s a wonderful way to make the public engaged and also raise more money for the project.”

Red-lipped batfish or Venezuelan poodle moth, anyone?