Scientists Embark on Initiative to Sequence DNA from Earth’s Species

A group of scientists from around the world recently launched an initiative to sequence the DNA of all eukaryotic species on Earth. The Earth BioGenome Project could reframe the way we understand life and lead to discoveries in technology, medicine and genomics, according to the researchers.

The 24 scientists involved in the project wrote about their vision in a perspective paper published April 23 in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The central goal of the Earth BioGenome Project is to understand the evolution and organization of life on Earth by sequencing the DNA of plants, animals and other organisms, said co-author Keith A. Crandall, PhD, director of the Computational Biology Institute at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University. The DNA of less than one percent of these species has been sequenced. The project, which will take about 10 years to complete, could also unveil 10 to 15 million previously unknown species. The findings will be available to scientists from all of the countries that participate in the project, Crandall said.

“The Earth BioGenome Project would provide the foundational knowledge for understanding disease vectors, environmental impacts on food supply, and insights into sustaining ecosystem functions that literally provide the food we eat, the air we breathe and the water we drink,” Crandall said.

The Earth BioGenome Project was inspired by the Human Genome Project, which sequenced the entire human genome. The findings of the Human Genome Project impacted human medicine, veterinary medicine, biotechnology, environmental science, renewable energy, industrial biotechnology and forensics. 

Researchers estimate the Earth BioGenome Project will cost about $4.7 billion and could generate a significant return-on-investment (ROI). They compare this price tag to the Human Genome Project, which cost about $4.8 billion (adjusted for inflation) and generated a return-on-investment ratio of 141-to-1.

“This is a really exciting concept bringing the challenge of the Human Genome Project to every species on Earth,” Crandall said. “Like the Human Genome Project, we anticipate the Earth BioGenome Project will accelerate sequencing technologies and generate a plethora of biotechnology and pharmaceutical discoveries.”