Life on earth is rich with diversity, and while we know a lot about some organisms, there is still so much more to learn. Researchers have started using genetic tools to fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge, and now, a massive effort has begun. The Earth BioGenome Project, which started in 2018, is aiming to sequence the genomes of all eukaryotic organisms, which include fungi, plants, and animals. We've already lost a tremendous amount of the world's biodiversity - estimates are have suggested that as many as two-thirds of wildlife has been lost in the past 50 years, and more will be gone by 2050. So the race is on to catalogue the species we still share the planet with, and find ways to save them as ecological pressures like human activity, climate change, and habitat loss accelerate.
Scientists have already been able to study organisms like fruit flies, nematode worms, yeast cells, or mice in great detail. In Phase One of the BioGenome Project, scientists will aim to sequence at least one genome from each of the 9,400 taxonomic families. About one-third of that portion of the project is expected to be completed at the end of this year. In Phase Two, one species from each of the 180,000 genera will be sequenced. At the end of Phase Three, the genomes of about 1.8 million eukaryotes will be known.
Various aspects of the physiology of all of these animals will work in very different ways, which are also limited by their environments, and that may be reflected in part in their genomes. This genomic data could give humans insight into our own biology as well. A tree of life that is created from the genomes of organisms could give us tremendous insight into evolution, adaptation, ecology, and more phenomena.
A collection of papers reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is exploring The Earth BioGenome Project (EGP), which will encompass some other efforts including the Bird 10,000 Genomes Project in Denmark and China, the California Conservation Genomics Project, and the Darwin Tree of Life Project in the UK. There are 22 countries represented by 44 institutions that are currently affiliated with the project.
“The special feature on the EBP captures the essence and excitement of the largest-scale coordinated effort in the history of biology,” said Harris Lewin, chair of the EBP Working Group and a Distinguished Professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California (UC) Davis. What we learn from this project could be beneficial to the study of basic science, as well as potentially having "breakthrough applications across a wide range of pressing global problems, such as preventing biodiversity loss and adapting food crops to climate change.”