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A new project will sequence the genomes of all 66,000 species of animal, plant, fungi and protozoa in the UK over the next 10 to 20 years.
The Darwin Tree of Life Project is a collaboration between the Wellcome Sanger Institute, the Museum, Royal Botanic Gardens (Kew) and many other institutions. Contributing to the Earth BioGenome Project which aims to sequence the genomes of all life on Earth, this initiative will focus solely on UK biodiversity.
By sequencing the genomes of every single species that lives in the UK, researchers hope to delve deeper into their evolutionary history, track changes that have occurred over the last few centuries and even inform biomedicine, agriculture and conservation priorities in new ways.
The Museum will be using its taxonomic expertise, collections and community to help gather samples and develop new standard operating procedures in how to collect and sequence particular groups of organisms.
Dr Tim Littlewood, Head of Life Sciences Department at the Museum, says, 'Whether you are interested in food, disease or speciation, the history of how every organism on the planet has diverged and adapted to its environment is recorded in its genetic makeup. How you then harness that is dependent on your ability to understand it.'
It has been estimated that the project could take up to 20 years to complete, and will be achieved in three distinct phases. How the researchers go about choosing which species will get sequenced first has not yet been determined, but will likely yield a cross section of organisms and different ecosystems within the British Isles.
Tim says, 'The cool part will be the understanding the genetic basis for the exquisite adaptations we see across the natural world. A better understanding of genomic diversity is a moonshot enterprise for the scientific community that everyone can get behind.
'Understanding natural processes and adaptations to diverse environments developed by different organisms will provide a spectacular resource for tackling current and future challenges.'
This could be important in a number of different ways, not least in the biomedical world.
'Take the fact that salamanders regenerate their limbs,' explains Tim. 'What is the genetic basis of that regeneration? If you could understand that, why wouldn't you then try to regenerate a human limb? In fact, there are people already working on this.'
The project is also expected to influence the bioengineering sector, where technological advances are allowing scientists to build entire genomes from the ground up. By looking at what has evolved over hundreds of millions of years, studying the genomes of plants and animals will allow researchers to see what is possible and more importantly, what impact certain genetic tweaks or engineering could result in.
But the information gained will also be invaluable in looking at the history of nature in Britain.
The UK has long been at the forefront of natural history studies, both within our own borders and overseas. Since 1881, the Museum has been the epicentre of this desire to seek, understand and exploit new species.
Over these 137 years, through collecting and through our connections with wider UK natural history communities, we have gained a good understanding of what plants and animals live in the British Isles.
'But a lot of our lists of species and ID guides are now over 100 years old,' says Tim. 'We've not actually redressed, or returned to, our own natural history for a very long time in any grand system. And we've not yet looked at it in a modern sense, either.'
The Darwin Tree of Life Project will therefore help establish a new baseline assessment of UK biodiversity as seen through genomics. It will also help in looking at how the myriad of species that live right across the country have changed over the last few centuries, as we return to our historical collections to better understand change.
Tim says, 'We will be using modern methods to get a really good window on the present and the past. And of course a window on the past gives you a prospective model on the future.'
The Darwin Tree of Life Project is an enormous undertaking, but will feed into an even more ambitious one: to sequence the genome of every single known eukaryotic species on the planet, meaning species with cells that have a nucleus enclosed within membranes.
Known as the Earth BioGenome Project, institutions and researchers around the globe will start piecing together all species from the biggest whale to the smallest single-celled algae.
It will link many other programmes that have already started decoding the genomes of some of the groups, such as the Bird 10,000 Genomes Project, while encouraging newer ventures on other groups that tend to get less attention.
For some, this is seen as collecting for the future, digitising the natural world in a way never before imaged and opening it up to new ways of analysis, hopefully revealing more about the natural world than ever before.