Australian scientist charts progress of global biology project

Sydney: An international team of scientists has reached a milestone in their 10-year project which they believe will ultimately change biological studies, according to one of Australia’s leading geneticists.

La Trobe University Distinguished Professor of Genetics Jenny Graves said the Earth BioGenome Project (EBP) aims to catalogue the genomes, an organism’s complete set of DNA, of all known animals, plants, fungi, and single-celled organisms, which amount to about 1.8 million species.

The EBP, which began in 2018 and is being undertaken in 44 affiliated institutions in 22 countries has now entered a new phase as it moves from pilot projects to full-scale production sequencing, Xinhua news agency reported.

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The team’s progress has been described in two multi-authored papers published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) of the US and unveiled on Wednesday.

Coinciding with those reports, Graves has written a commentary on the Conversation website, saying the vast DNA sequence database will “help us understand how complex life evolved, how it functions, and how biodiversity can be protected.”

“While model organisms like mice, fruit flies and nematodes have been tremendously important in our understanding of gene functions, it’s a huge advantage to be able to study other species that may work a bit differently,” Graves wrote.

“Researchers will no longer be limited to a few ‘model species’ and will be able to mine the DNA sequence database of any organism that shows interesting characteristics,” she said.

Graves said another important role of the EBP was conservation genomics, a field of study that uses DNA sequencing to identify the estimated 28 per cent of the world’s complex organisms now classified as being threatened.

She said data provided by the EBP can help scientists monitor the species’ genetic health and provide insights into best conservation methods.

Graves also said it would be exciting to explore the “dark matter” of the genome, and “reveal how DNA sequences that don’t encode proteins still play a role in genome function and evolution”.

The geneticist said that until recently, “sequencing large genomes took years and many millions of dollars” but “tremendous technical advances” had dramatically reduced the time and costs.

She said researchers would previously have used “millions of tiny DNA fragments to paste the entire sequence together,” whereas “new sequencing methods can scan long molecules of DNA that are tethered in tiny tubes, or squeezed through tiny holes in a membrane.”

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