A variety of zoological specimens in spirit jars held at the Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum, London © Trustees of the Natural History Museum

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Ambitious project to map genomes of all life on British Isles funded by Wellcome

The Darwin Tree of Life Project, led by the Wellcome Sanger Institute, aims to sequence the genomes of 60,000 species that live in, and around, the British Isles

The Natural History Museum is one of ten institutes partnering on a project that will give unprecedented insights to the diverse range of species on the British Isles.

The Darwin Tree of Life Project, led by the Wellcome Sanger Institute, aims to sequence the genomes of 60,000 species that live in, and around, the British Isles. Wellcome have now announced £9.4m of funding which will support the ten institutions involved in the project to launch the first phase of sequencing. This will see the teams collect and barcode around 8,000 key British species and deliver high-quality genomes of 2,000 species.

Working with the Wellcome Sanger Institute supports the Natural History Museum’s work in ensuring its collections are accessible and digitally available for future innovations and generations. It is hoped the work will act as a launchpad for a larger ambition to, ultimately, sequence the genomes of all species on Earth.

Dr Tim Littlewood, Executive Director of Science at the Natural History Museum, says, ‘A greater understanding of Earth’s biodiversity and the responsible stewarding of its resources is one of the most important challenges for humanity today.

‘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 a unique insights into both 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.’

From the small fraction of the Earth’s species that have been sequenced so far, enormous scientific advances have been made. Exploring the genomes of these organisms will reveal how the diversity of life on Earth has adapted and evolved at a fundamental level. Revealing genetic, biochemical and metabolic complexity of life’s diversity will reveal novel and common processes, revealing means of developing new drugs, combatting disease, securing food and tackling challenges to society and the planet. Fundamentally, the venture also heralds an exploration into the unknown with technology leading to a new era of discovery.

Working together, the institutions will be developing new methods for DNA preparation, sequencing, gene finding and high-quality assembly of genomes and their annotation. Data will be shared openly creating a resource of enormous value to the global scientific community and public engagement experts, naturalists, citizen scientists, academics and schoolchildren.

Professor Mark Blaxter, Lead of the Darwin Tree of Life Programme at The Wellcome Sanger Institute, says, ‘The Darwin Tree of Life Project will change biology forever, delivering new insights into the numerous animals that call the British Isles home. The impact of this work will be equivalent to the effect the Human Genome Project has had on human health over the last 25 years.’

The project, part of the Earth Biogenome project, is expected to take at least ten years and marks a historic chapter in the way that we view, understand and study life on Earth.

Notes for editors 

Images and additional quotes available to download here.

Natural History Media contact: Tel: +44 (0)20 7942 5654 / 07799690151 Email: press@nhm.ac.uk  

The Darwin Tree of Life project is part of the Earth Biogenome Project.

The 10 Institutes involved in the project are:

·         University of Cambridge

·         The Earlham Institute

·         University of Edinburgh

·         EMBL-European Bioinformatics Institute

·         The Marine Biological Association (Plymouth)

·         Natural History Museum

·         Royal Botanic Gardens Kew

·         Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

·         University of Oxford/Wytham Woods

·         Wellcome Sanger Institute

The Natural History Museum exists to inspire a love of the natural world and unlock answers to the big issues facing humanity and the planet. It is a world-leading science research centre, and through its unique collection and unrivalled expertise it is tackling issues such as food security, eradicating diseases and managing resource scarcity. 

The Natural History Museum is the most visited natural history museum in Europe and the top science attraction in the UK; we welcome around five million visitors each year and our website receives over 850,000 unique visitors a month. People come from around the world to enjoy our galleries and events and engage both in-person and online with our science and educational activities through innovative programmes and citizen science projects.

The Wellcome Sanger Institute is a world leading genomics research centre. We undertake large-scale research that forms the foundations of knowledge in biology and medicine. We are open and collaborative; our data, results, tools and technologies are shared across the globe to advance science. Our ambition is vast – we take on projects that are not possible anywhere else. We use the power of genome sequencing to understand and harness the information in DNA. Funded by Wellcome, we have the freedom and support to push the boundaries of genomics. Our findings are used to improve health and to understand life on Earth. Find out more on our Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and on our Blog.

About Wellcome

Wellcome exists to improve health by helping great ideas to thrive. We support researchers, we take on big health challenges, we campaign for better science, and we help everyone get involved with science and health research. We are a politically and financially independent foundation.