Funding to sequence thousands of species on the British Isles

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Funding to sequence thousands of species on the British Isles

7 Nov 2019 - 16:42


  • The Darwin Tree of Life is an ambitious project to map 66 000 species in the British Isles
  • Wellcome has awarded funding for the next phase of the project, which aims to sequence 2000 species
  • The resulting data will offer an unprecedented insight into how life on earth evolved

8 November, Cambridge – Wellcome has awarded £9.4m to support ten institutions involved in the Darwin Tree of Life project, which aims to sequence thousands of species on the British Isles. The funding will be used to collect and barcode around 8000 key species and deliver high-quality genomes for 2000 species.

Unprecedented insights

The Darwin Tree of Life project is part of a larger ambition, the Earth BioGenome Project, which aims to sequence all species on Earth. Exploring the genomes of all known species would give an unprecedented insight into how life on Earth evolved. It would also uncover new genes, proteins and metabolic pathways, and could even help us develop new drugs for infectious and inherited diseases.

From the small fraction of the Earth’s species that have been sequenced, enormous advances have been made in biomedicine. From plants, a number of lifesaving drugs have been discovered and are now being created in the lab – such as artemisinin for malaria and taxol for cancer.

Treasure trove of data

Genome sequencing also allows us to better understand our world and protect its unique biodiversity. The data resulting from this project will be a freely accessible resource for the science community, public engagement experts, naturalists, citizen scientists, university students and schoolchildren.

“Freely open and annotated genome sequences for a large number of species across the tree of life will be a foundation for the future of biology research of all types,” explained Paul Flicek, Associate Director of EMBL-EBI.

EMBL’s European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI) is one of the ten institutes that has been awarded Wellcome funding. EMBL-EBI brings its data coordination and annotation expertise to make the data accessible to anyone with an internet connection. The genomes will be shared using EMBL-EBI’s Ensembl data resource.

Changing biology

“This funding will allow us to develop innovative and scalable new approaches for the organisation, annotation and comparison of many thousands of genomes,” said Kevin Howe, EMBL-EBI Team Leader for Eukaryotic Annotation. 

“The Darwin Tree of Life Project will change biology forever, delivering new insights into the numerous animals that call the British Isles home,” said Mark Blaxter, Lead of the Darwin Tree of Life Programme at the Wellcome Sanger Institute. “The impact of this work will be equivalent to the effect the Human Genome Project has had on human health over the last 25 years.”

The 10 institutes involved in the project are: 

• University of Cambridge 
• Earlham Institute (EI)
• University of Edinburgh
• EMBL’s-European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI)
• The Marine Biological Association (Plymouth) 
• Natural History Museum
• Royal Botanic Gardens Kew
• Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
• University of Oxford
• Wellcome Sanger Institute

Adapted from a press release by Wellcome.

Contact the news team

Oana Stroe
Senior Communications Officer
+44 (0)1223 494 369

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