A draw of butterflies held in the Museum's collection

The project aims to sequence all known species that live in the UK ©The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

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Project to sequence genomes of all UK life receives over £9 million in funding

The Darwin Tree of Life Project aims to sequence the genomes of all 66,000 species of animals, plants, fungi and protozoa found in the UK.

This information will give new insights into the evolutionary history of these species, track changes that have occurred over the past few centuries and even inform the field of biomedicine.

The ambitious task kicked off earlier this year for the Museum when researchers teamed up with Natural England to undertake a three-day bioblitz in northwest England.

They tested the feasibility of collecting invertebrates by immediately extracting, isolating, amplifying and even sequencing their DNA while still in the field. Other specimens were flash-frozen at -176°C for genome sequencing later.

The Wellcome Sanger Institute has announced that they are providing £9.4 million of funding to support a group of ten organisations in launching the first phase of sequencing for The Darwin Tree of Life Project. These establishments include not only the Museum and the Wellcome Sanger Institute, but also Royal Botanic Gardens (Kew), the University of Oxford and Earlham Institute among others.

The funding will initially be used to collect and barcode 8,000 key species, while also enabling the teams to produce high-quality genomes of 2,000 species.

Sampling invertebrates on the sand dunes of Ainsdale

Earlier this year, researchers visited Ainsdale Nature Reserve to sample the sand dune during a three-day bioblitz ©The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

Dr Tim Littlewood, Executive Director of Science at the Museum, says, 'Re-examining our own natural history in the British Isles gives us an opportunity to modernise and truly appreciate the scope and scale of the biodiversity on our doorstep as never before.

'Including the Natural History Museum's world-leading collections as part of the project offers us unique insights into the past, the present and the prospective future of UK biodiversity. Understanding changes that have occurred over time will be crucial in our ability to create a future where both people and the planet thrive.'

Sequencing life

The challenge of sequencing the genome of all species that live in the UK is not to be taken lightly.

For a start, it is not really known exactly how many species there are in the British Isles, particularly when it comes to hard-to-identify organisms such as fungi and protozoa.

By building up a DNA barcode library, where scientists sequence standard sections of an organism's genome and then make them available in an open database, it is hoped that finding out what species live in an environment would be possible just by sampling what is known as environmental DNA, or eDNA. These barcode sequences also act as quality control, to confirm what we think we have sequenced.

This would allow researchers to take a sample of water or soil, look for pieces of DNA present and match them to what's in the barcode library. This means that scientists could use eDNA to help identify species that are living in an environment, whether or not the species are present in the initial sample collected.

Pop-up lab built during the bioblitz in Ainsdale

By building pop-up labs in the field, researchers are able to sequence the genomes of samples collected just hours before ©The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London 

It could also play a role in helping to identify any as-yet-unknown species if the eDNA collected is significantly different from sequences held in the library.

Dr Fred Rumsey is a Senior Curator in Charge in botany at the Museum.

'The Darwin Tree of Life Project's ambition is admirably huge and promises to deliver an amazing resource, sequencing the data for the genomes of all of our native British species,' says Fred. 'As part of the project, the Natural History Museum will be sampling thousands of UK plant species adding to our world-leading collections.

'Increasingly, this will be the way we capture and identify the living world around us, through its DNA sequences, delivering rapid answers through mobile devices. Working with this cutting-edge technology will enable us to engage a broader, younger audience and ensure we inspire the scientists of tomorrow.'

But the scope of the project is larger than just confirming that certain species are or are not present in a particular location at any one time.

Understanding change

Having been an island for the last 10,000 years, the UK is an interesting case for how species change over time.

By comparing the genomes of species from the continent with those from the UK, researchers will be able to track evolutionary changes that have occurred since the populations were split. Scientists will also see how species have been responding to other environmental differences as the climate crisis has been unfolding.

A UK woodland in autumn

The teams will sample all habitats across the UK to get the genomes of every species of plant, animal, fungi and protozoa ©Neil Howard/Flick CC BY-NC 2.0

Dr Gavin Broad, Principal Curator in Charge of Insects at the Museum, says, 'This project is a step change in our knowledge of the UK fauna and flora.

'Genomes are key to understanding the evolution of organisms and their interactions with the world, but there are still many major branches of the tree of life for which we have no available genomes. The success of Darwin Tree of Life will depend on knowing how to find a lot of obscure species and ensuring that we know what we are sequencing. 

'This is where the Natural History Museum's expertise and collections come into their own. We will be working with our partners across the country to build a library of DNA barcodes for all UK animals, and making use of our liquid nitrogen storage to ensure that tissues are as fresh as possible, for their entire genomes to be sequenced at Sanger.'

While this initial funding will help the Darwin Tree of Life Project get off to a good start, the entire undertaking is expected to take between 10 and 20 years. It will eventually feed into the even larger Earth BioGenome Project, which aims to sequence all life on Earth.