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.

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