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Scientists Are Sequencing the Planet’s Genome

If Noah had today’s genome sequencers he might have built a smaller ark filled with hard drives instead of animals.

A network of scientists around the world Thursday launched a 10-year project to sequence the genomes of all the 1.5 million known plants, animals, and fungi on Earth. The Earth Biogenome Project is a collaboration designed to avoid duplicating one another’s work and to make all genome data inter-operable and open for public use. Its leaders estimate that the total cost will be around $4.7 billion, which is less than the almost $5 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars than the Human Genome Project cost in 2003.

That project created whole new markets worth $20 billion last year by one estimate. The cost of sequencing has plummeted and perhaps 3,500 other species have been sequenced since the creation of the human reference genome, ranging from axolotl salamanders who can regenerate their limbs to Neandertals.

The new plan is to begin with a high-quality reference genome from each of the 9,000 or so families of eukaryotes, which is the name for living things whose cells contain mitochondria. Then researchers will produce less detailed sequences of a representative of the each of the 150,000 to 200,000 genera, followed by rougher genomes for the remaining 1.5 million species. Those references at the genera and family level will make it easier for future researchers to improve any particular species’ rough genome as needed.

“Having the full genomes of all the organisms we share the planet with will change our ability to understand and care for them,” biologist Mark Blaxter of Edinburgh Genomics and the University of Edinburgh said in a statement.

There are also human health applications, Ester Gaya, a senior mycologist and Felix Forest, a senior scientist at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew said in a statement: “Genome data can provide us with diagnostic tools to be able to effectively respond to disease outbreaks and minimize the impact on food security.”

But the biggest impacts, like those of the Human Genome Project, are probably still unknowable. Biologist Jim Smith at the Wellcome Sanger Institute said in a statement, “we could not imagine how the DNA sequence produced back then would transform research into human health and disease today.”