Ambitious project to sequence all 'complex' life on Earth begins today

$5bn project to map DNA of every animal, plant and fungus

Scientists today launched a broad program to map the genetic code of the 1.5 million known complex species of life on Earth and their goal is to complete the project within a decade.

Many scientists believe that Earth has now entered the sixth mass extinction, with humans having created a toxic mix of habitat loss, pollution and climate change, which has already led to the loss of at least 77 species of mammals, 140 types of bird and 34 amphibians since 1500. She will help lead the Australian team aiming to sequence 50 species over the next five years.

Wiped out: The world's last male northern white rhino died in March this year but scientists hope that stored DNA could be used to revive the species.

A greater understanding of Earth's biodiversity and the responsible stewarding of its resources are among the most crucial scientific and social challenges of the new millennium. The overcoming of these challenges requires new scientific knowledge of evolution and interactions among millions of the planet's organisms.

Currently, fewer than 3,500, or about 0.2 per cent of all known eukaryotic species have had their genome sequenced, with fewer than 100 at reference quality. Sequencing all known eukaryotic genomes, thousands at reference quality, will revolutionise our understanding of biology and evolution, bolster efforts to conserve, help protect and restore biodiversity, and in return create new benefits for society and human welfare.

Prof Harris Lewin of the University of California, Davis, who chairs the project, said it could be as transformational for biology as the Human Genome Project, which decoded the human genome between 1990 and 2003.

Like those of the Human Genome Project, however, the most important discoveries are probably still unknowable.

The total volume of biological data that will be gathered is expected to be on the "exascale" - more than that accumulated by Twitter, YouTube or the whole of astronomy.

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This plan will include major research efforts across the world, including the U.S. program to find the Genetic Code sequence and the 66,000 vertebrate, a Chinese program to find the 10,000 plant genome sequence and the Global Ant Genomes Alliance, which aims to find the sequence of approximately 200 antimicrobial genomes.

It is expected to cost $4.7 billion.

The Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge has committed to sequencing the genomes of all 66,000 United Kingdom species and will act as a hub for the UK's contributions toward the ambitious project.

"By nature we will have a deep understanding of how to develop new treatments for infectious diseases, identify drugs to slow down aging, create new approaches to feed the world or create new biomaterials", he told reporters.

Gene Robinson, Director of the University of Illinois' Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology, is in London working on a project.

"We desperately need to catalog life on our planet now", he said.

Jim Smith, director of science at the Wellcome Trust global health charity, said the project would be "internationally inspirational" and - like the Human Genome Project - had the potential to transform research into health and disease.

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