Norwich researchers helping to map the DNA of all life on earth

A bee on a flower covered in pollen

The Darwin Tree of Life project has provided valuable data on UK pollinator species, which helps scientists to understand how populations have changed over time by comparing them to genomes of museum samples - Credit: Earlham Institute

Without action to curb climate change and protect the health of global ecosystems, Earth is forecast to lose 50pc of its biodiversity by the end of this century. Researchers at the Earlham Institute at Norwich Research Park are participating in a global project that is creating a digital library of the DNA sequences for all known eukaryotic (containing a cell nucleus) life that will help in the fight to confront the climate crisis and protect our natural world’s undervalued biodiversity. 

The Earth BioGenome Project is a global effort to sequence the genomes, which make up the DNA of all plants, animals, fungi and other microbial life on Earth. The project aims to catalogue the DNA sequences of 1.8 million species, covering the vast majority identified to date worldwide.

The kakapo is a nocturnal, flightless parrot

The project provides data on the variety and diversity of species that are at risk of disappearing, such as the kākāpō parrot from New Zealand - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

It is hoped that establishing this information and understanding how each species’ DNA is constructed will help generate effective ways to prevent biodiversity loss and pathogen spread, monitor and protect ecosystems, and enhance our natural environment and wellbeing.  

The UK arm of this project - the Darwin Tree of Life project - is being led by the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge with partners across the UK, which includes the Earlham Institute. The Darwin Tree of Life project aims to sequence genomes for around 70,000 known species found in Britain and Ireland. It has already submitted over 200 complete reference genomes to public databases, which act as a genomic blueprint for scientists and industry. 

Professor Neil Hall, director of the Earlham Institute, which is one of the partners in the Darwin Tree of Life project

Professor Neil Hall, director of the Earlham Institute, which is one of the partners in the Darwin Tree of Life project - Credit: Earlham Institute

Professor Neil Hall, director of the Earlham Institute, said: "The Darwin Tree of Life project will provide a dataset at an unparalleled scale, providing invaluable insights into the biodiversity of the British Isles and Ireland and its rich demographic and evolutionary history.  

“Nature provides us with some of our most valuable resources and assets, from medicines and materials to our natural landscapes. The genomics information we generate and document in this project will help us to preserve nature and harness its power.  

“Here at the Earlham Institute, our leading expertise in single-cell genomics (study of cell heterogeneity) and bioinformatics will ensure the Darwin Tree of Life project can sequence and analyse key organisms by generating shareable and reproducible data, maximising efficiency and collaborative research impact. 

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“For example, the genomics analysis data we have produced from UK pollinator species helps us to understand how populations have changed over time by comparing them to genomes of museum samples. This gives us insight into how climate change and human activity, such as pesticide use, is impacting pollinator populations, generating information which could inform environmental policy and agricultural practices."

The genomes recorded in the project so far give a good steer on the sheer variety and diversity of species that are at risk of disappearing, such as the Eurasian water vole from Britain and Ireland, and the kākāpō parrot from New Zealand. Other key species to be investigated that provide invaluable ecosystem environments services include bees and earthworms. 

Water Vole in a hole on a river bank

The project provides data on the variety and diversity of species that are at risk of disappearing, such as the Eurasian water vole - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

2022 will see a significant increase in activity with 3,000 genomes expected to be sequenced by the Earth BioGenome Project, with the Darwin Tree of Life project aiming to sequence and publish at least 2,000 reference genomes. 

Prof Mark Blaxter, director of the Tree of Life programme at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: “As climate change, globalisation of trade and the degradation of agricultural and natural habitats drive the sixth mass extinction, it has never been more important to catalogue and understand the biodiversity of our planet. Openly accessible understanding of species’ biology is a global good.”