Some are calling it a ‘genome zoo.’ Others say it will be the world’s greatest menagerie of vertebrate genomes. Yes, you could say that about the launch of the Genome 10K Community of Scientists (G10KCOS), but this massive project – in its way at least as ambitious as the famed Human Genome Project – is more than a collection of genomes from vertebrate species. It will be the foundation for a genomic history of vertebrate evolution.
Once in a while projects come along that are so big and potentially so important that it’s worthwhile to note their beginnings. In this case, the project is the complete DNA sequencing (mapping of the reproductive chromosomes) for roughly 10,000 species of vertebrates (animals with backbones, e.g. birds, fish, mammals). The idea for the project was confirmed by a conference in April of 2009. Now in the fall of 2009, the organizational structure and research guidelines are being finalized. Genome research lends itself to large projects, partly because much of the work can be automated, and mostly because the interpretation of results across many species is likely to be the most fruitful of new insights. Besides, sooner or later this kind of sequencing will be done in any case, and scientists (being essentially rational and occasionally optimizing agents) see benefits in an organized rather than scattershot effort, such as:
- Standardizing the collection, cataloging, and handling of the genome sequencing process and results.
- Coordinating the diversity and purpose of the project among dozens of institutions and scores of scientists.
- Providing public access and research guidelines for the vast amount information that will be collected.
- Furthering the development of faster, better, and cheaper genome sequencing equipment and methodology.
- Raising money for the project ($50 Million, initial estimate).
- Developing a kind of ‘genome archive’ against the possibility of future species loss.
However, what really gets the neuro-synapses popping for scientists is the challenge and promise of opening the book on vertebrate evolution.
“Understanding the evolution of the vertebrates is one of the greatest detective stories in science,” said David Haussler, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC). “No one has ever really known how the elephant got its trunk, or how the leopard got its spots. This project will lay the foundation for work that will answer those questions and many others.”
By sequencing the DNA of 10,000 vertebrates — roughly one-sixth of the 60,000 species estimated to be living today — biologists will be able to reconstruct the genetic changes that gave rise to this astonishing diversity. Some parts of our DNA are very similar to the DNA of other vertebrates, reflecting our descent from a common ancestor, while other parts are markedly different. “We can understand the function of elements in the human genome by seeing what parts of the genome have changed and what parts have not changed in humans and other animals,” said Haussler.
The primary impetus behind the proposal is the rapidly expanding capability of DNA sequencers and the associated decline in sequencing costs. “We’ll soon be in a situation where it will cost only a few thousand dollars to sequence a genome,” Haussler said. “At that point, most of the cost will be getting samples, managing the project, and handling data.”