Wellcome Sanger Institute is leading initiative to sequence every species

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Alison Cranage - Credit: WELLCOME SANGER INSTITUTE

All life on Earth has something in common - DNA.

Every living thing is built from a different arrangement of the same four letters of DNA code.

Determining the order of those letters – sequencing genomes - has transformed our understanding of biology.

Yet, only 0.4% of the 1.5 million known eukaryotes (plants, animals, fungi and protists) have had their genomes sequenced.

Knowledge of the genome sequences of those few species, including humans, has provided the basis to develop new approaches to medicines, agriculture and conservation.


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Thanks to recent advances, it is now feasible to sequence the genomes of all eukaryotic species on Earth.

The Wellcome Sanger Institute is part of the historic Earth BioGenome Project, which aims to do just that.

Working with partners across the UK, the Institute is leading an initiative to sequence the DNA of 70,000 species in Britain and Ireland for the first time, in the Darwin Tree of Life project.

People in white coats in the Wellcome Sanger sequencing lab, Hinxton

The Wellcome Sanger sequencing lab - Credit: Dan Ross/Wellcome Sanger Institute

One of the latest genomes to be published, in collaboration with the Wildwood Trust, is of the European water vole (Arvicola amphibius).

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The European water vole is a small, semi-aquatic mammal that lives on the banks of freshwater habitats and in wetlands.

The species is native to Europe, West Asia, Russia and Kazakhstan.

While the water vole’s conservation status is of ‘least concern’ worldwide, populations in the UK have declined to such an extent that the species is considered nationally endangered.

The genome data will be used by conservationists to better understand the genetic diversity of the species.

It may aid in breeding and conservation programmes, as researchers can consider mixing individuals from geographically distinct water vole populations, to ensure they have the best chance to thrive.

As well as aiding conservation and biodiversity studies, genome data from the Darwin Tree of Life project will allow researchers to delve deep into evolution, understanding better how life has evolved.

The genome sequences will also enhance research into medicine and new biofuels.

The sequences of plants and fungi will be particularly important for agriculture – 75% of the world’s food supply depends on just 12 species of plants.

The wild relatives of crops harbour essential genetic diversity, which can be used for breeding resilience to disease and to climate change.

Researchers are aiming to build a digital library of life.

While they don’t know exactly what they’ll find, they do know there is a wealth of creatures and molecules waiting to be discovered.


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