The project, known as Darwin Tree of Life, was announced some time ago but has now received £9.4m of funding from the Wellcome Trust. Wytham is one of 10 institutions involved in its first phase, which will see teams of researchers collect and barcode the genetic material of around 8,000 key British species, as well as fully sequencing the genomes of 2,000 more. Ultimately, though, the goal is to sequence the genetic code of some 60,000 species.
The hope is that the project will be the springboard for an even more ambitious effort to sequence the genomes of all life on Earth. It promises new insights into how life developed and uncover new genes and metabolic pathways and perhaps new drugs to treat human diseases. Only a minority of Earth’s organisms have had their genomes sequenced so far, but this has led to enormous scientific and medical advances, including the development of life-saving drugs such as artemisinin for malaria. By systematically cataloguing the genetic basis for the rich and threatened variety of life on Earth, the project will also support efforts to conserve biodiversity.
The other institutions involved include the University of Cambridge, the Natural History Museum the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and Edinburgh and the Wellcome Sanger Institute. ‘The Darwin Tree of Life project will change biology forever, delivering new insights into the numerous animals, plants and fungi that call the British Isles home,’ said Professor Mark Blaxter, who leads the initiative at the Sanger Institute. ‘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.’
Darwin Tree of Life is part of the Earth BioGenome Project.