Sequencing genomes of every vertebrate

A global consortium of leading genome scientists, including La Trobe University Professor Jenny Graves, is backing a move to sequence the DNA of all 71,657 species of animals with backbones.

The cover story in today’s issue of Nature shows how the feat could be achieved, and explains the enormous benefits.

“Sequencing animal genomes has got cheaper and easier since the human genome was released more than twenty years ago, costing AUD$4 billion or $14 billion in today’s dollars,” said Professor Jenny Graves, the 2017 Prime Minister’s Science Prize winner.

“If done today it would cost just one or two thousand dollars.”

But, she said, even the human genome still has some “black holes” especially around the regions of chromosomes that attach to fibres to pull them apart when the cell divides, and in the crucial regions that have the instructions to turn genes on or off.

This flagship study of the Vertebrate Genome Project, coordinated by scientists at Rockefeller University in New York, assesses combinations of different methods to sequence enormous animal genomes to the highest quality, and recommends which are cheapest and most efficient.

“A combination of cheap mass reads and novel ‘longread’ sequencing that delivers runs of thousands of bases turns out to be best.”

Professor Graves said the work is providing a better understanding of how genes and chromosomes work, and how they evolved.

“The way is now clear for the global genomics community to amass the sequence of genomes of all vertebrates: humans and platypus, birds and snakes, frogs and fish. This will provide enormous new opportunities for research into human health, conservation and biotech,” Professor Graves said.

That would mean scientists no longer depended on information from just a few model species such the mouse or the fruit fly.

“Anyone who researches health and disease, or who studies endangered wildlife, or is looking for new biological products for the marketplace will be able to get the ultimate information about their species for free on a website.

Professor Graves is also a part of the even more ambitious Earth Biogenome Project, which aims to sequence the the genomes of all complex life on earth over the next ten years, including all animals, plants, fungi and single celled protists like amoeba.

“This may sound like an impossible dream, but will actually cost less than the Human Genome Project of the 1990s”, she said. “It will change biology forever.”

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