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Unravelling the DNA of British wildlife

Important examples of British species of shark, scallop and bee will have their genome sequenced for the first time, thanks to the efforts of Museum scientists.

The animals join a list of 25 UK species that will have their genetic make-up decoded by the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, who are celebrating their twenty-fifth anniversary.

Dr Julia Wilson, Associate Director of the Institute, said, 'Through sequencing these 25 genomes, scientists will gain a better understanding of UK species, how they arrived here, their evolution and how different species are adapting to a changing environment.

'The results could reveal hidden truths in these species, and will enable the scientific community to understand how our world is constantly changing and evolving around us.'

The king scallop is edible and an important economic resource for the UK © Manfred Heyde, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

A genome is an organism's complete set of DNA, including all of its genes.

Despite the rapid improvements in technology and techniques since the landmark sequencing of the human genome in 2003, unravelling the whole genome of a species is still a complicated procedure.

The Museum is one of the partners on the project and helped to suggest suitable species that could be analysed.

The red mason bee, which nests in holes and hollow stems, is one of 250 species of solitary bee in the UK © Orangeaurochs, licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The people have spoken

Five of the species from a total of 42 candidates were chosen by public vote. Museum scientists championed seven of the species in contention, taking part in online chats and debates with the public and schoolchildren.

The lesser-spotted catshark has joined two other Museum-backed species, the king scallop and the red mason bee, on the final list of 25.

Other species on the list include the iconic, endangered red squirrel and a newcomer to Britain, the invasive Asian hornet.

Musuem researcher Dr Kyle Martin championed the lesser spotted catshark

Using the data

All of the results will be made publically available. This data will support future studies on UK biodiversity and aid the conservation and understanding of these species. Once the Sanger Institute has unravelled the genomes, Museum staff will use their expertise to analyse the resulting data for their chosen species.

Tim Littlewood, Head of Life Sciences at the Museum, said, 'The Museum is proud to celebrate the advances that molecular techniques such as genome sequencing can bring to the study of UK wildlife.

'The 80 million specimens we care for from around the world hold a wealth of genetic information that enables us to conduct innovative research that addresses global challenges. A focus on UK biodiversity with cutting-edge technology is particularly welcome.'