The Earth BioGenome Project: Sequencing life and informing our future

According to the WWF’s Living Planet Report 2020, it is estimated that natural biodiversity fell by 68 percent on average between 1970 and 2016.

For the 56 percent of us who now inhabit urban areas, the natural world may seem distant and unconnected from our everyday lives. The truth is our existence relies on symbiosis with nature. Nearly half of the world’s population is directly reliant on natural resources for their livelihoods. The continued degradation of our ecosystem can only have negative consequences for humanity. Stopping and reversing this trend will not only take multilateral political action of the kind seen at COP26, but it will also require international scientific cooperation far beyond anything we have attempted.

  • 68 percent of Earth’s biodiversity disappeared between 1970 and 2016.
  • BGI Group is playing a leading role in the Earth BioGenome Project (EBP), an international effort to digitally catalogue all eukaryotic life on the planet.
  • The EBP will allow us to better understand and safeguard the natural world for future generations.

Humanity has long sought to catalogue the world around it. The Linnaean System established a naming convention for living things. Dr. Samuel Johnson’s dictionary attempted to systematize written English. The international effort which led to the publication of the human genome in 2003 sought to establish the language of human life.

Unlike the 20th century’s other great explorative project, the space race, the Human Genome Project (HGP) was a multilateral collaborative effort. Centres of research excellence across the US, UK, China, France, Japan, and Germany pooled their resources – with each member chosen on the basis of capacity rather than ideology. In that sense, the HGP perfectly encapsulated the ability of science to bring people together – fitting, given the project aimed to uplift our understanding of humanity. Nevertheless, the HGP was inherently solipsistic. Earth is not inhabited by humans alone, we share it.

Now, an even more ambitious and essential genomic project has begun.

The Earth BioGenome Project (EBP) is, in the words of its founders, “a moon-shot for biology that aims to sequence, catalogue, and characterize the genomes of all of Earth’s eukaryotic biodiversity over a period of 10 years.” Like the HGP before it, the EBP is a truly international effort, with research taking place in Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Japan, Norway, Saudi Arabia, Spain, South Korea, Switzerland, the UK, and the USA. Many of the organizations previously involved in the HGP will once again play major roles in the EBP including the Wellcome Sanger Institute, BGI Group, and the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics.

Commenting on the project, Liu Huan, Chief Scientist of Biodiversity at BGI-Research, and Head of BGI-Research's Institute of Digital Earth BioGenome stated: “BGI Group was founded in 1999 in order to participate in the HGP. Just over 20 years later, we are once again joining with partners from around the world in order to expand our collective understanding of life on Earth. We are proud of the essential contributions we had made to the HGP and see our involvement in the EBP as a continuation of our mission to better understand the building blocks of life for the benefit of humankind. Since our establishment, we have investigated the frontiers of genetic science and its applications beyond the human race, sequencing everything from rice to silkworms, the domestic chicken to the giant panda.”

BGI Group’s Institute of Digital Earth is lending its expertise and leadership to a number of diverse EBP projects including the 10,000 Birds Genomics Alliance (B10K), 10,000 Plant Genome Project (10KP), and the 10,000 Fish Genomics Project (Fish10K). These projects will be essential components in this new, foundational attempt to catalogue life on Earth.

Projects like the EBP and previously completed HGP absolutely depend on seamless collaboration across borders. Structured as partnerships between leading research institutes, they require funding and political support over many years. It is only when scientists work together that real progress can be made.

According to Dr. Francis S Collins, Director of the US National Institutes of Health and former leader of the US Human Genome Project effort, “The First Law of Technology states that truly transformational technology will have its immediate consequences overestimated and its long-term consequences underestimated.” We cannot know for certain what the immediate benefits of the EBP will be once it is completed in 2028. Good science deals with probabilities, not certainties. Nonetheless, it is extremely likely that a better understanding of Earth’s biodiversity will aid us in better conserving the species and ecosystems that are so important to our survival.

Projects like the HGP and the EBP speak to our need as a species to understand the world around us. They encourage cross-border collaboration, investment and perhaps most importantly, they inspire future generations of scientists and enable us to better protect the natural world. The EBP is a fundamental science project. At its core, it aims to promote the preservation, protection, and restoration of the astounding biological diversity of planet earth. Practical applications of discoveries stemming from the project will range from agricultural products to medicines to practical means of preserving our ecosystem.  

The natural world, our world, is currently facing several grave and complex threats from human activity. Despite these challenges, it is within our power as a species to chart a new course. The HGP codified a new model for international scientific cooperation. The EBP will be our next step in our joint quest to comprehend and preserve our world for future generations.

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