Ambitious plan to map genetic code of all life on the British Isles
Scientists at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) are providing a major contribution to a ground-breaking initiative aimed at bringing fresh insight to the biodiversity of the British Isles. The new genome-sequencing programme will act as a launchpad for the ultimate ambition to sequence the DNA of all species on Earth. Just as sequencing the human genome has transformed biomedical research over the last 25 years, this will transform biodiversity for the next century and beyond.
The research institute will work with nine partner organisations, including the University of Edinburgh and the Wellcome Sanger Institute, on the £9.4m Wellcome-funded Darwin Tree of Life (DToL) project. Together, the consortium* aims to sequence the entire genome of 2000 species during the first phase of the project.
Centuries of research have resulted in the British Isles having the best-known flora on Earth and it is, therefore, an ideal first subject for such an ambitious endeavour. The genomes of Britain’s organisms will give an unprecedented insight into how life on Earth evolved and uncover new genes, proteins and metabolic pathways. These could, in turn, help develop new treatments for diseases or solutions to the issue of food security, for example. At a time when biodiversity is in crisis and many species are under threat from climate change, the project will provide crucial data to help characterise, catalogue and support the conservation of global biodiversity itself, for future generations.
Scientists at Edinburgh’s ‘Botanics’ bring world-leading expertise to the project, in particular relating to important Scottish groups such as ferns, mosses, liverworts, lichens and flowering plants including the rare Scottish primrose (Primula scotica) and delicate twinflower (Linnaea borealis). Their state-of-the-art facilities are to become a “genome acquisition lab” - a major hub for collecting and processing a vast range of plant material from these groups and others.
Scottish primrose (Primula scotica)
The Botanics’ taxonomic and ecological expertise is pivotal to the success of the project: the scientists’ comprehensive knowledge of plants in the field and in the lab will ensure collection of appropriate samples. Specialist horticulturists, with extensive knowledge and experience in conservation horticulture and cultivating ferns and bryophytes, will be critical to providing sufficient material to allow scientists to work with such small and hard to propagate species.
“To sequence whole genomes, it is crucial we obtain very high-quality DNA extractions from the organisms, in very long unbroken strands,” explained Dr Michelle Hart, who heads the RBGE team. “This means rethinking many of our techniques. We will explore gentle methodologies for breaking through plant cell walls and extracting their DNA without using harsh physical or chemical procedures. We will draw on the expertise of many colleagues who focus on different plant and fungal groups using a range of pioneering techniques.”
Dr Alex Twyford, Lecturer in Botany at the University of Edinburgh, said it was important the two institutes worked together on such a major initiative: “The Darwin Tree of Life Project will transform our understanding of the British fauna and flora, providing new insights from the level of the gene to the entire ecosystem,” he commented. “The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and the University of Edinburgh will play an important role in collecting and analysing British plants and will use these data to inform our conservation science.”
Professor Mark Blaxter, Lead of the Darwin Tree of Life Programme at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, commented: “The Darwin Tree of Life Project will change biology forever, delivering new insights into the numerous animals, plants, fungi and protists that call the British Isles home.”
Michael Dunn, Head of genetics and molecular sciences at Wellcome, added: “The mission to sequence all life on the British Isles is ambitious, but by bringing together this diverse group of organisations with expertise in sample collection, DNA sequencing and data processing we believe that we have the right team to achieve this.”
RBGE’s Science Policy and Impact Officer, Dr Alex Davey concluded: “By fine-tuning our methodologies on the well-known flora and fauna of the British Isles we will be in an excellent position to extend this work in future to the genomes of lesser-known species from biodiversity hot-spots of the world. The Darwin Tree of Life Project is a foundational project, working towards the ultimate goal of sequencing all complex life on Earth, as part of the Earth BioGenome Project. From the small fraction of the Earth’s species whose genomes have already been sequenced, enormous advances have been made in knowledge and biomedicine. The DToL takes this to a whole new level.”
For further information, images and interviews please call Shauna Hay at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh on 0131 248 2900/07824 529 028 email@example.com
Corin Campbell, The University of Edinburgh, on 0131 650 6382 firstname.lastname@example.org
The Darwin Tree of Life project is a member of, and will contribute to the aims of, the Earth Biogenome Project.
* 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
The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) is a leading international research organisation delivering knowledge, education and plant conservation action around the world. In Scotland its four Gardens at Edinburgh, Benmore, Logan and Dawyck attract around a million visitors each year. It operates as a Non Departmental Public Body established under the National Heritage (Scotland) Act 1985, principally funded by the Scottish Government. It is also a registered charity, managed by a Board of Trustees appointed by Ministers. Its mission is “To explore, conserve and explain the world of plants for a better future”.
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