Group’s 1st genome maps unveiled
A group of scientists unveiled the first results Thursday of an ambitious effort to map the genes of tens of thousands of animal species, a project they said could help save animals from extinction.
The scientists are working with the Genome 10,000 consortium on the Vertebrate Genomes Project, which is seeking to map the genomes of all 66,000 known species of mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian and fish on Earth. Genome 10,000 has members at more than 50 institutions around the globe.
The consortium released the first 15 such maps on Thursday, ranging from the Canada lynx to the kakapo, a flightless parrot native to New Zealand.
The genome is the entire set of genetic material that is present in an organism. The release of the first sets is “a statement to the world that what we want to accomplish is indeed feasible,” said Harris Lewin, a professor of evolution at the University of California, Davis, who is working on the project.
“The time has come, but of course it’s only the beginning,” Lewin said.
The work will help inform future conservationists of jeopardized species, scientists working on the project said. The first 14 species to be mapped also include the duck-billed platypus, two bat species and the zebra finch. The zebra finch was the one species for which both sexes were mapped, bringing the total to 15. Scientists Jen Vashon, left, and Tanya Lama show a Canada lynx that was used to source genetic material for the animal’s reference genome at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in Worcester County, Mass.
Sequencing the genome of tens of thousands of animals could easily take 10 years, said Sadye Paez, program director for the project. But giving scientists access to this kind of information could help save rare species because it would give conservationists and biologists a new set of tools, she said.
Paez described the project as an effort to “essentially communicate a library of life.”
Tanya Lama, a doctoral candidate in environmental conservation at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, coordinated the effort to sequence the lynx genome. The wild cat is the subject of debate about its conservation
status in the United States, and a better understanding of its genetics can help protect its future, Lama said.
“It’s going to help us plan for the future — help us generate tools for monitoring population health, and help us inform conservation strategy,” she said.
The project has three “genome sequencing hubs,” including Rockefeller University in New York; the Sanger Institute outside Cambridge, England; and the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany, organizers said.
Mollie Matteson, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity
who is not involved in the project, said more information about animals’ genetics could lead to better understanding of how animals resist disease or cope with changes in the environment.
“I think what’s interesting to me from a conservation aspect is just what we might be able to discern about the genetic diversity within a species,” Matteson said.
The project has similarities with the Earth BioGenome Project, which seeks to catalog the genomes for 1.5 million species. Lewin chairs that project’s working group. The Vertebrate Genomes Project will contribute to that effort.