Tree of Life

The Darwin Tree of Life Project will sequence the genetic codes of 66,000 species in the UK

CABI is helping to ‘unlock’ the mysteries of natural life itself by taking part in the Darwin Tree of Life Project (DToL) which aims to sequence the genetic codes of 60,000 species that live across the British Isles. The work forms part of a worldwide effort – through the global Earth BioGenome Project (EBP) – to sequence the genomes of all 1.5 million known species of plants, animals, fungi and protozoa on Earth.

Led by the Wellcome Sanger Institute, in partnership with the Natural History Museum, The Earlham Institute, the Royal Botanic Gardens, (Kew and Edinburgh) and other organisations, Darwin Tree of Life Project aims, by sequencing all species in the British Isles. This is an ambitious undertaking which will lead to a better understanding of all species on Earth. In turn, the outcomes of the project could lead to further developments in our appreciation of evolution and biodiversity.

CABI, working closely with colleagues at RBG Kew, will provide its expertise in fungal taxonomy whilst also providing a broad range of UK fungi that have been characterised and preserved in the CABI Genetic Resources Collection. These strains will form an integral part of the fungal ‘branch’ of the DToL, informing the project and being added to the global genome databases. CABI scientists have considerable expertise and experience in the optimal preservation of fungi and bacteria and other microorganisms and samples but CABI currently does not have full genome sequences for most of the strains within its vast culture collection.

Dr Alan Buddie

Dr Alan Buddie

Dr Alan Buddie, Microbiology Research Leader at CABI, will work with colleagues at RBG Kew and the Sanger Institute in order to provide DNA of representative fungal species and, to help interpret the taxonomic data obtained from their genome sequences.

Dr Buddie said, “This is an extremely exciting, challenging and high-profile scientific undertaking which has the benefit of advancing our understanding of fungal evolution. As a whole, the project will greatly enhance our knowledge of the biodiversity of the British Isles.

“CABI maintains a culture collection on behalf of its 49 member countries. The collection contains 28,000 living strains of fungi which includes the UK National Collection of Fungus Cultures which will be the source of many of the cultures to be used in the project. Whole genome sequences generated from the cultures curated by CABI will add value to the holdings and can be used to enhance our knowledge about this fascinating group of organisms so relevant to the Darwin Tree of Life project.”

The Darwin Tree of Life Project will take place over the course of a decade, and has received £9.4m funding from Wellcome to launch the first phase of sequencing. This will see the teams collect and barcode around 8000 key British species, and deliver high-quality genomes of 2000 species. It is only possible due to recent advances in both sequencing and information technology. The data collected will be stored in public domain databases, making it both free and available to use for research purposes.

Professor Mark Blaxter, who leads the project at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, says, “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. 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.”

Michael Dunn, Head of genetics and molecular sciences at Wellcome, said, “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. We’ll gain new insights into nature that will help develop new treatments for infectious diseases, identify drugs to slow ageing, generate new approaches to feeding the world or create new bio materials.”

CABI’s full Fungal & Bacterial Identification capabilities, as part of its Bioscience Services, also offers bespoke molecular services such as fingerprinting, identification of nematodes and barcoding. For more information visit the dedicated Bioscience webpage.

Wellcome Sanger Institute issued a press release in relation to this story, ‘Ambitious project to map genomes of all life on British Isles funded by Wellcome’, which can be viewed on their website.


Additional information

The consortium of 10 research institutes, museums and associated organisations ultimately aims to sequence the genetic code of 60,000 species that live in the British Isles.

The nine other institutes partnering with the Sanger Institute in the Darwin Tree of Life project are the 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 and University of Oxford.

The Darwin Tree of Life project is a member of, and will contribute to the aims of the Earth BioGenome Project: