A new plan to sequence all Earth’s animals and plants could lead to medical and material advances that dwarf even what the Human Genome Project has achieved

April 4, 2018
By Alice Klein 

BOB MURPHY has had some close shaves. He once found a deadly viper slithering into his sleeping bag in a Southeast Asian jungle. He was in a four-wheel drive that rolled over on a dirt trail in the Australian desert. He nearly plummeted to his death when a cliff he was standing on in Vietnam collapsed. And last year, he found himself in the middle of a war zone in Armenia. “I’m like a cat with nine lives,” he says.

Murphy is a “hunter-gatherer”– a biologist charged with cataloguing Earth’s rich array of plants and animals. For decades, he has plunged into the farthest-flung corners of the globe to find and collect new species. “It’s not for everyone,” he says. “People can end up with broken bones or malaria or puff up with insect bites, and the days are long and tough.” Indeed, the dangers can be life threatening. In 2001, Murphy’s friend and fellow collector Joe Slowinski died after being bitten by a venomous snake he had caught in Myanmar. Despite the risks, hunter-gatherers will soon be in high demand as an audacious scheme gets under way. This biological “moonshot”, known as the Earth BioGenome Project, is scheduled to launch in June. Its mission is to sequence the genomes of all known species of flora and fauna on Earth. Nature’s recipe books could hold clues to making far superior medicines, materials, biofuels and crops, unravelling our evolutionary past and help us to be better custodians of our planet. The first challenge, however, will be collecting specimens from the wild. Then comes the sequencing itself, which will require Herculean amounts of human labour and computing power. Can it be done?

The Human Genome Project seemed equally far-fetched when it was proposed in the late 1980s. “There were many people who told us, ‘This is a waste of money, it’s way too costly’,” says David Haussler at the University of California, Santa Cruz. It cost $2.7 billion– or about $4.8 billion at today’s prices – and took over a decade to complete, but the treasure trove of information it unlocked has wildly exceeded expectations. Not only did it give birth to the personalised medicine revolution, it also propelled advances in diverse fields including forensics, archaeology and bioinformatics. Not to mention, every $1 of public money invested has since generated $141 in economic activity. “It’s paid for itself many times over,” says Haussler.

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