LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 30: George Lewys, age 5, poses with two Forest Giant Owl butterflies (Caligo eurilochus) sat on slices of oranges at the Natural History Museum on March 30, 2017 in London, England. The Natural History Museum's Butterfly House, which features an array of butterflies and chrysalises, is open to the public from March 31, 2017. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)
The Earth BioGenome Project aims to sequence the DNA of all the world’s animals, plants, fungi and protozoa © Getty

International biologists have launched an ambitious project to read all the DNA in each of the world’s known animal, plant and fungal species over the next 10 years, sequencing 1.5m different genomes at an estimated cost of $4.7bn.

The anticipated spend by the Earth BioGenome Project (EBP) would be similar, allowing for inflation, to the cost of the Human Genome Project, which read the genetic code of just one species, Homo sapiens, between 1990 and 2003.

The EBP could transform biology as extensively as the Human Genome Project had done, said Professor Harris Lewin of the University of California, Davis, who chairs the project.

“The blueprints for all living species . . . will be a tremendous resource for new discoveries, understanding the rules of life, how evolution works, new approaches for the conservation of rare and endangered species, and provide new resources for researchers in agricultural and medical fields,” he said.

So far, 19 research institutions around the world have signed up to take part in the EBP and more plan to join.

They expect to read the full DNA sequence of all the world’s eukaryotic species — organisms whose cells have a nucleus enclosed by membranes. These are animals, plants, fungi and protozoa, which encompass all of life except simple microbes (bacteria and archaea).

The target of 1.5m genomes represents all eukaryotic species known and catalogued by science. Biologists say that many more remain undiscovered, with the real total estimated at 10m to 15m species. But they are disappearing fast as a result of human activity, in what scientists are calling Earth’s sixth great extinction; the fifth was the asteroid impact that wiped out dinosaurs 65m years ago.

So far, only 3,300 eukaryotic species have had their DNA fully sequenced, 0.2 per cent of the target. But researchers at the EBP launch on Thursday insisted that, with strong international co-ordination, adequate funding and continuing rapid technological progress, 1.5m genomes could be achieved by 2028.

“The DNA sequencing itself is not the most difficult technical challenge of the project,” said Prof Lewin. “The most difficult part will be to acquire and process high-quality samples from species that are hard to reach.” New technologies such as specimen-collecting drones may need to be developed.

Participating institutions aim to raise the required funds from governments, foundations and charities. The project’s first phase — producing a reference genome for each of the 9,000 taxonomic families of eukaryotic life — will require $600m, of which about one-third has already been provided.

UK participants, led by the Wellcome Sanger Institute, will sequence the genetic codes of all 66,000 species known to inhabit Britain in a £100m national effort called the Darwin Tree of Life, as well as helping the broader international project.

Jim Smith, science director of the Wellcome Trust, compared the potential benefits to those from Human Genome Project, which has transformed research into human health and disease.

“From nature we shall gain insights into how to develop new treatments for infectious diseases, identify drugs to slow ageing [and] generate new approaches to feeding the world or create new bio materials,” he said.

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