Sequencing the world

Sequencing the world

How to map the DNA of all known plants and animal species on Earth

IN NOVEMBER 2015, 23 of biology’s bigwigs met up at the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, DC, to plot a grandiose scheme. It had been 12 years since the publication of the complete genetic sequence of Homo sapiens. Other organisms’ genomes had been deciphered in the intervening period but the projects doing so had a piecemeal feel to them. Some were predictable one-offs, such as chickens, honey bees and rice. Some were more ambitious, such as attempts to sample vertebrate, insect and arachnid biodiversity by looking at representatives of several thousand genera within these groups, but were advancing only slowly. What was needed, the committee concluded, was a project with the scale and sweep of the original Human Genome Project. Its goal, they decided, should be to gather DNA sequences from specimens of all complex life on Earth. They decided to call it the Earth BioGenome Project (EBP).

At around the same time as this meeting, a Peruvian entrepreneur living in São Paulo, Brazil, was formulating an audacious plan of his own. Juan Carlos Castilla Rubio wanted to shift the economy of the Amazon basin away from industries such as mining, logging and ranching, and towards one based on exploiting the region’s living organisms and the biological information they embody. At least twice in the past—with the businesses of rubber-tree plantations, and of blood-pressure drugs called ACE inhibitors, which are derived from snake venom—Amazonian organisms have helped create industries worth billions of dollars. Today’s explosion of biological knowledge, Mr Castilla felt, portended many more such opportunities.