Technology & Science

'Genome zoo' would house 10,000 species

A group of about 70 scientists from around the world is proposing a "genomic zoo," a database of DNA sequences from 10,000 species of vertebrates.

A group of about 70 scientists from around the world is proposing a "genomic zoo," a database of DNA sequences from 10,000 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish.

The Genome 10K Project, launched in April, involves scientists from zoos, museums, research centres and universities. A full outline of the scientists' proposal was published this week in the Journal of Heredity.

"Understanding the evolution of the vertebrates is one of the greatest detective stories in science," said David Haussler of the University of California, Santa Cruz, one of the three researchers to come up with the idea.

"For the first time, we have a chance to really see evolution in action, caught in the act of changing whole genomes," Haussler said.

The goal of the $50-million project is to sequence the complete genetic code of 10,000 living vertebrate species, about one for every vertebrate genus. Scientists estimate that there are 60,000 living vertebrate species.

Such a project would have been impossibly expensive just a decade ago, the researchers say.

"The original cost of sequencing the human genome by a major international consortium was over a billion dollars," said Stephen O'Brien of the National Cancer Institute. "With the latest sequencing technology, it now costs $50,000 to $100,000 per genome."

O'Brien said the price of sequencing a genome needs to drop even more, by a factor of 10, to make the sequencing of 10,000 genomes feasible.

"At that point, most of the cost will be getting samples, managing the project and handling data," Haussler said.

The advantage of such a broad collection of genomes, the scientists said, is that researchers would be able to trace changes in the DNA of vertebrates over time, and to understand the genetic basis behind the rapid adaptations seen in vertebrates.

"Genomes contain information from the past — they are molecular fossils — and having sequences from vertebrates will be an essential source of rich information," said Nobel laureate Sydney Brenner, a geneticist with the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif.

All vertebrates evolved from a common ancestor that lived between 500 million and 600 million years ago, Haussler said: One marine vertebrate species gave rise to "one of the most spectacularly malleable branches of life."

The database would also help conservation efforts by measuring genetic diversity and helping scientists to predict how species will respond to environmental changes, such as pollution and climate change, and biological changes, such as diseases or invasive species.

"The risk of extinction is lessened for species for which we have a genome sequence because it enables studies that can provide important information relevant to conservation," said Oliver Ryder of the San Diego Zoo and the University of California, San Diego.

The researchers said the most challenging parts of beginning such a project will be collecting samples and getting them to the research centres where genome sequencing can take place —and raising the $50 million for the project.

"How do you raise $50 million? Ask nicely and make a strong case," Haussler said.