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Cabbage versus clam: you pick the winner

The public have the chance to vote in a major genetics project helping scientists to understand more about important British species. 

Worms, millipedes, clams and cabbages might not win any beauty contests, but what's remarkable is their role as important British species.

And these organisms may receive a greater prize: having their genetic code unravelled.

To mark its twenty-fifth anniversary, the Wellcome Trust Sanger Centre is sequencing the genome of 25 species found in the UK. Twenty have already been chosen, leaving 42 to battle it out in a public vote for the final five places.

The nominees are all of interest to scientists. They might be endangered, an invasive newcomer or have curious abilities that we want to understand.

By decoding their genetic make-up, experts will have a far better understanding of what makes them tick.

Museum staff are championing seven of the 42 contenders. Read on to learn more about them and why they should win, then cast your vote here.

1. Lundy cabbage (Coincya wrightii)

Appearance:  A short-lived, straggly cabbage which looks similar to an oilseed rape plant. It has pretty golden-yellow flowers but an unpleasant taste.

Location: This cabbage is unique to the UK, only found on a few cliffs on the small island of Lundy in the Bristol Channel.

Lifestyle: The cabbage grows on Lundy's rocky southeastern slopes and cliffs. Although it is eaten by goats, sheep and rabbits, the greatest threat to its survival is from invasive rhododendron plants which once covered the area. An extensive eradication campaign now has the rhododendrons under control.

Curious fact: Not only is the cabbage unique to the island, it also hosts a unique beetle species. So if the cabbage went extinct, the beetle would die out too.

Why sequence its genome? Many plants in the cabbage family are grown as commercial crops. Understanding the Lundy cabbage's genome might give us insights into its economically important relatives.

Find out more about the Lundy cabbage and vote for it here

2. Cyanobacteria (Nostoc commune)

Also known as: Nostril slime, troll's butter, star slime or fat choy.

Appearance: This cyanobacteria becomes blobby, green, slimy, jelly-like sheets when wet. It shrinks to black threads when dehydrated.

Location: It is found in many countries and locations, from cobblestones to paddy fields, the Gobi desert to polar regions.

Lifestyle: Made of colonies of bacteria, Nostoc commune is tough and is a keystone species in harsh environments. It can survive dehydration, makes its own energy from sunlight and obtains nitrogen from the air.

Curious fact: The dehydrated bacteria rehydrates quickly after storms, appearing to have grown overnight. People in the Middle Ages thought it fell overnight from the stars or planets, leading to names such as star jelly. It is harvested and eaten as a vegetable in Asia.

Why sequence its genome? Understanding the Nostoc commune genome will give us insights into its ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen as fertiliser, thrive under extreme conditions, production of toxins and potentially new medical drugs.

Find out more about Nostoc commune and vote for it here

3. Lesser-spotted catshark (Scyliorhinus canicula)

Also known as: Rock salmon or common dogfish.

Location: This species lives all around the UK's coast, up to Norway and down through the Mediterranean and north coast of Africa. It is sometimes used in research laboratories because scientists find them easy to rear and keep in aquaria.

Appearance: It is a slender grey-brown shark with a white belly and dark spots on its side and fins. It grows to about one metre in length.

Lifestyle: The shallow-water shark forages the seafloor for its main diet of shellfish. It is harmless to humans, but you may have eaten it as it is sold in fish and chip shops as rock salmon. It lays eggs in small sacs, which if washed ashore are commonly called 'mermaid's purses'.

Curious fact: Like most sharks, catsharks continue growing sets of teeth throughout their life. Their skin is covered by tiny, flat, V-shaped scales called dermal denticles, which are more like teeth than fish scales. Teeth may have originally evolved from something like these denticles.

Why sequence its genome? Secrets of regeneration could be hidden within shark genomes, and the catshark is one of the best-suited to being studied in the lab. Many other shark species are either too large or endangered.

Find out more about the catshark and vote for it here

4. Baltic clam (Limecola balthica)

Appearance: The small, circular clam grows up to three centimetres long. It is often white, but can be a variety of other colours, including pink, yellow and orange.

Location: In Britain, it mostly lives in intertidal water such as estuaries and bays.

Lifestyle: This clam lives buried beneath the sediment, extending siphons to the surface of the silt from where it can filter food particles. It normally lives a few centimetres down, but can take evasive action from predators. If poo from crabs that have eaten Baltic clams is placed near other Baltic clams, they will burrow more deeply to avoid being eaten.

Curious fact: The clams can be highly coloured, even on the inside of their shells, but they spend their lives unseen in the sediment. So what use are their colours?

Why sequence its genome? Sequencing the genome may help us understand why the clam has genes for colour.

Find out more about the Baltic clam and vote for it here

5. Naval shipworm (Teredo navalis)

Appearance: This weird 'worm' is actually a mollusc, like a clam or mussel. It doesn't live inside a shell - rather, its shell lies at one end of its worm-like body and is used to burrow into wood. It can grow up to 50 centimetres in length, but is normally about 10cm long.

Location: The shipworm lives around the coast of Britain and around the world. It makes it burrow in submerged timber, whether driftwood, wooden boat hulls or jetties.

Lifestyle: Once a juvenile shipworm finds a piece of wood, it makes a burrow, lining the sides with a chalky tube. The worm uses bacteria in its gills to help it to digest the wood. It can filter sea water with its gills to obtain other food, such as algae, and can close its burrow if under threat. Shipworms can be very destructive to wooden constructions, quickly weakening them. The species was a major threat to wooden ships, so copper was used to shield the hulls from attack.

Curious fact: Young adult shipworms are all male, but as they grow larger they turn into females. Males release their sperm into the water, which females trap and use to fertilize their eggs. The larvae are brooded inside the female for a while, before being discharged into the water to look for new pieces of wood.

Why sequence its genome? Digesting wood is difficult. Learning more about how the shipworms manage this would enable us to make biofuels more efficiently.

Find out more about the shipworm and vote for it here

6. Pill millipede (Glomeris marginata)

Location: It's found in all areas of the UK except the north of Scotland. It likes damp, shaded places.

Appearance: This is a short, black, shiny millipede with four legs on each of its segments. Its short length (up to two centimetres) means it is sometimes mistaken for a woodlouse.

Lifestyle: Pill millipedes digest dead plant matter, breaking it down into smaller pieces. This helps the decomposition process, where leaves and other organic matter become soil. It makes no nest for its eggs, but each egg is enclosed in a little capsule of excreted earth. The millipedes can live up to 11 years.

Curious fact: Pill millipedes can roll into an egg shape for defence. To create the perfect egg shape the last segment divides into three parts.

Why sequence its genome? Pill millipedes are understudied yet make a great contribution to soil health and crop growth. Learning more about them will help us understand their role.

Find out more about the pill millipede and vote for it here

7. Twisted-wing fly (Elenchus tenuicornis)

Location: Twisted-wing flies occur world-wide, but our chosen species was originally found in England in 1815. 

Appearance: Males and females look completely different, which is part of their appeal. Males are weird looking fly-like creatures with branched antennae, while females are maggot-like and retain their larval appearance into the adult stage.

Lifestyle: Females spend most of their lives, including their adult stage, as parasitoids of other insects. Male adults are free-living.

Curious fact: In our chosen species, Elenchus tenuicornis, males mate with the female while she is almost entirely inside her host, a planthopper insect.

Why sequence its genome? The evolutionary position of the twisted-wing flies is still uncertain, with some theories suggesting they are closest to beetles, and others that they are closer to Diptera, the true flies. Having the genome sequenced would settle this question.

Find out more about the twisted-wing fly and vote for it here

Vote for your favourite species

You can vote for the species you think should be investigated here.

The vote closes on Friday 8 December.

Image credits

Lesser-spotted catshark © Bj.schoenmakers, licensed under CC0 1.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Lundy cabbage © Natural England/Allan Drewitt, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via flickr
Naval shipworm credit: United States Geological Survey, via Wikimedia Commons
Pill millipede © Stu's Images, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Cyanobacteria © gailhampshire, licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Baltic clam © Jan Johan ter Poorten, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Twisted-wing fly © Dawn Painter/NHMLondon