Recent news has featured the European Space Agency’s “Gaia” satellite, which has essentially mapped most of the Milky Way galaxy, documenting the locations, color, radiation signatures and movements of 1.7 billion stars. Billion. The enormous data set, which the ESA released on April 25, will keep astronomers busy for years.
Back here on earth, a global consortium of scientific institutions have begun work on an equally ambitious endeavor called the Earth BioGenome Project. Through the project, scientists plan to sequence the genomes of all known eukaryotes – basically all living things more complex than bacteria – with a total of about 1.5 million species. Scientists refer to the initiative as biology’s equivalent of the moonshot.
Participating scientists plan to approach the project in three steps. Over the first three years, they intend to catalog detailed genomic sequences for one representative species from each of 9,330 taxonomic families of plants, animals and protozoa as reference genomes. Next, during years four to seven, they will construct less-detailed sequences for one species from each genus, about 150,000 overall. Finally, over the following four years, they will sequence the remaining species, in less detail, for a total of around 1.5 million.
Like the Gaia program, the EBP will provide a trove of data from which researchers can extract specific information for use in health sciences, industry, agriculture and food production.
"The benefits that will come from increasing our knowledge and understanding of the genomes of the Earth's biodiversity will be monumental, especially for agriculture," says Kevin Hackett senior national program leader for entomology with USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS). "There are solutions to problems in pest control out there in the genetic biodiversity that we can barely conceive of right now."
Currently, according to ARS, scientists around the world have sequenced the genomes of about 15,000 species, less than 0.1 percent of all life on Earth.
Steady improvements in the technology used for genomic sequencing helps make the EBP feasible. ARS estimates the total 10-year cost at around $4.5 billion, but sequencing a species genome currently costs around $1,000, compared with $10,000 in 2001.
The total cost for phase I of EBP is estimated at about $500 million. The total cost of the 10-year project is expected to be roughly $4.5 billion. EBP's feasibility benefits from the sharp decline in sequencing costs, down from $10,000 per genome in 2001 to $1,000 today.