The Earth BioGenome Project (and Some Questions it Raises)

This week I want to take a look at the Earth Biogenome Project, and pass on some comments that I heard at a recent conference.

The Earth Biogenome Project aims to sequence the DNA of all life on Earth in the coming ten years in order to benefit human welfare, protect biodiversity and help in understanding ecosystems.

The following comes from the project press release from its launch:

An international consortium of scientists is proposing what is arguably the most ambitious project in the history of biology: sequencing the DNA of all known eukaryotic species on Earth. 

The benefits of the monumental initiative promise to be a complete transformation of the scientific understanding of life on Earth and a vital new resource for global innovations in medicine, agriculture, conservation, technology and genomics.

The central goal of the Earth BioGenome Project is to understand the evolution and organization of life on our planet by sequencing and functionally annotating the genomes of 1.5 million known species of eukaryotes, a massive group that includes plants, animals, fungi and other organisms whose cells have a nucleus that houses their chromosomal DNA. To date, the genomes of less than 0.2 percent of eukaryotic species have been sequenced. 

The project also seeks to reveal some of the estimated 10 million to 15 million unknown species of eukaryotes, most of which are single cell organisms, insects and small animals in the oceans. The genomic data will be a freely available resource for scientific discovery and the resulting benefits shared with countries and indigenous communities where biodiversity is sourced. Researchers estimate the proposed initiative will take 10 years and cost approximately $4.7 billion.  

What and Undertaking! And what promise!

As regular readers will know, my interest in technology is focused on ethics, and such a project raises a few questions that I would like to leave you with (as raised by Tess Doezema in her recent presentation at the European Biotechnology in Society Seminar.

  1. Ethical guidelines and frameworks for research into humans are generally based on the idea of informed consent: the researcher informs the participants about the implications of the research and the participants accept the possible outcomes. This model is difficult to apply however to other natural objects (such as animals). What should guidelines look like?
  2. The aim of the project seems to be preserving species. The website shows lots of statistics related to how many types of animal have become and will become extinct in the near future, leading me to conclude that de-extinction plays a role in the project. But that is problematic in itself. It raises the question of whether conservation practices will be improved or lessened, after all if we can bring an extinct animal back to life maybe we will not work as hard to save it!
  3. What are the implications for creating a global market for the DNA of all living things?

I look forward to comments and suggestions.

Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition

This year the Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition is taking place online between the 8 – 11 July 2021. 

With a packed programme of inspiring talks, fun science from home activities and exciting digital content, there is something for all ages.

Nineteen research groups from across the UK will be demonstrating their research through innovative digital experiences, from escape rooms and quizzes to virtual tours and digital games. 

This year you can explore all the cutting-edge research through our interactive Summer Science hub, with four exciting zones:

Zone 1: View from above
Blast off to the view from above zone to discover where galaxies come from, how we can track carbon from space, whether there has ever been life on Mars or simply marvel at how the iconic images from Hubble have changed the way we view our Universe forever.

Zone 2: Urban landscape
Explore the urban landscape zone to find out how microbes can turn rubbish into riches, test whether you can tell a landmine from a bottle top, design your own aeroplane based on a birds’ wing, test your eye control with the latest in robot simulations or discover how our air could be fresh again.

Zone 3: Under the skin
Delve under the skin in our zone dedicated to bodily research. Explore how tumours are made of different types of cells, why humans are smelly or how researchers are learning to grow new body parts from stem cells. Try your hand at creating 3D-printed personalised pills or ask yourself if you would connect your brain to the internet.

Zone 4: Forces of nature
Bring the outdoors in and explore the forces of nature zone. Do you know what a bee’s favourite flower is, or what the last day of the dinosaurs looked like? Discover what happens when we have too much water and take a forward look as we see how nature can help us to tackle the climate emergency and help us build a more sustainable future. 

In addition to the zones there will be a programme of short, online lightning lectures every day as well as interactive workshops and family shows at the weekend. The Big Summer Science Quiz will also return with science-themed rounds from well-known faces on Wednesday 7 July at 6.30pm, so get your team together and put the date in your diaries now. 

You can find the programme of events here.

Taking part in Summer Science 2021

This looks like a fantastic opportunity to entertain yourself and your family so why not have a look?

A Look at the Green Labs NL Project

Last week I raised a few questions about the kind of futures are envisaged for the planet from a rather argumentative standpoint: what will the political implication be if we take the technological fix approach to defending the climate?

Today I want to cast some light on a project that is asking another related question: what are the environmental consequences of actually carrying out scientific research?

This question moves beyond the idea that science and technological development might be able to help in reaching predetermined environmental standards (think about the Paris accord) or aims (UN Sustainable Development Goals) as it questions the research practices that might lead to this.

How can scientists make their research greener?

A small group of scientists in the Netherlands aim to investigate this question. They call themselves Green Labs NL.

From the website:

Green labs NL was started in 2021 by a few members of the Dutch Scientific Community who realized they shared a passion for making their science more sustainable.

The group aim to build a wider community in The Netherlands to help encourage individual scientists, lab groups and whole institutes to go greener when it comes to how we use our lab spaces, and the way we do science. The platform can aid by sharing resources and information, but also by bringing other like-minded scientists together.

It is run by scientists, and is fully non-profit. There is no CEO, CSO, … It is kept alive by the scientific community! 

This small team of scientists (4 people) have launched a really interesting blog and just held their first online Green Labs NL network meeting (in English).  The website also hosts a forum and a useful links section, one of which leads to Harvard University’s Green Labs website, so they are not alone in this movement.

This is an exciting development and I will certainly follow their work, and hope that some of our Technology Bloggers readers might do the same.