Scientists Aim To Sequence The Genomes Of All 66,000 Vertebrate Species On Earth

The project was officially launched today with the release of 15 reference genomes belonging to 14 species of vertebrates.

Vertebrate Genomes Project
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The project was officially launched today with the release of 15 reference genomes belonging to 14 species of vertebrates.

In April 2009, scientists from leading universities, research centers, museums, and zoos worldwide launched the Genome 10K project — an ambitious initiative to sequence the genome of 10,000 vertebrate species on Earth.

The goal of this project was to “assemble a genomic zoo” and capture “the genetic diversity of vertebrate species” by gathering the DNA sequences of at least one species in each vertebrate genus, the Genomics Institute at the University of California, Santa Cruz explained at the time.

Now, the project has grown bigger and bolder, and currently aims to collect high-quality genome sequences of all the vertebrates living on the planet, reports Science Magazine.

This includes all the Earth’s mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fish, and amounts to a total of approximately 66,000 species — each to be represented by a male and a female genome.

According to Gizmodo, the rebooted project — now going by the name of Vertebrate Genomes Project (VGP) — is one “of biblical proportions” and essentially envisions the creation of “a genetic Noah’ Ark” under the Genome 10K, or G10K, umbrella.

The revamped project will be carried out by Genome 10K Community of Scientists (G10KCOS), an international consortium of more than 150 experts from 50 institutions in 12 countries.

“This project is outlandish and outrageous — but it’s feasible, and it’s inevitable,” Harris Lewin, a VGP team member from the UC, Davis, said in a statement.

The announcement was made on Wednesday at the opening of the 2018 Genome 10K conference, an annual meeting of the consortium hosted at Rockefeller University in New York City.

The VGP project was officially launched today with the release of 15 high-quality reference genomes belonging to 14 species of animals that represent all the five classes of vertebrates: four mammal species, three bird species, one reptile (Goode’s desert tortoise, scientifically known as Gopherus evgoodei), one amphibian (a legless two-lined caecilian, or Rhinatrema bivittatum), and five fish species.

Among the newly-released genomes are that of Anna’s hummingbird (Calypte anna, pictured at the beginning of this article), the Canadian lynx (Lynx canadensis), the climbing perch (a fish species scientifically known as Anabas testudineus), the greater horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus ferrumequinum), and the endangered kakapo parrot (Strigops habroptila).

While the original Genome 10K initiative only managed to produce around 100 genomes, partly due to high sequencing costs, the scientists are confident in their success, particularly since the game has been radically changed after the significant drop in costs for high-quality sequencing.

With such operations now capped at less than $15,000 per billion DNA bases, the scientific community finally has the opportunity to sequence detailed vertebrate genomes, said G10K co-founder David Haussler.

“I am incredibly excited that now we’re now in a position to get it right,” stated Haussler, who is a computational biologist and the director of the Genomics Institute at UC Santa Cruz.

“Now is really the time to get started,” he pointed out. “We have no excuse to not do this.”

Case in point, the scientists are already working on sequencing 30 more genomes, notes Science Magazine. Together with the 15 genomes released today, these are part of the first phase of the VGP initiative, focused on producing high-quality, error-free reference genome assemblies for 266 vertebrate species.

The entire project is expected to cost $600 million to complete.