The koala genome was recently mapped by Australian scientists. Credit: Pixabay

Global launch to sequence genetic code of all complex life on Earth

Embargoed until: Publicly released:

Australia will join the Earth BioGenome Project, launched in London on Thursday, with the '50 in 5 initiative'. The global project is the most ambitious genomic project since the Human Genome Project and aims to map the genetic code of 1.5 million species. In Australia, University of Sydney is joined by UNSW, University of Melbourne and the Australian museum to map 50 species, including the bilby and numbat.

Organisation/s: The University of Sydney, The University of New South Wales, The University of Melbourne, Australian Museum

Funder: Multiple global institutions, coalitions and universities. Seed funding from Wellcome Sanger Institute.

Media Release

From: The University of Sydney

The Earth BioGenome Project, a global effort to sequence the genetic code, or genomes of all 1.5 million known animal, plant, protozoan and fungal species on Earth, was launched on Thursday as scientific partners and funders from around the globe gathered in London to discuss progress in organising and funding the project.

The Earth BioGenome Project (EBP) will ultimately create a new foundation for biology to drive solutions for preserving biodiversity and sustaining human societies.

Australia is being represented at the EBP launch by Professor Katherine Belov from the University of Sydney School of Life and Environmental Sciences. She will help lead the Australian team aiming to sequence 50 species over the next five years.

The EBP aims to sequence, catalogue and categorise the genomes of all of Earth’s eukaryotic* biodiversity over a period of 10 years. The projected cost of the EBP is $US4.7 billion. Accounting for inflation, the Human Genome Project today would cost $US5 billion.

A greater understanding of Earth’s biodiversity and the responsible stewarding of its resources are among the most crucial scientific and social challenges of the new millennium. The overcoming of these challenges requires new scientific knowledge of evolution and interactions among millions of the planet’s organisms.

Currently, fewer than 3500, or about 0.2 per cent of all known eukaryotic species have had their genome sequenced. The successful sequencing of the koala genome was announced in July by the Australian Museum, University of NSW and the University of Sydney.

Sequencing all genes of all life will revolutionise our understanding of biology and evolution, bolster efforts to conserve, help protect and restore biodiversity, and in return create new benefits for society and human welfare.

Professor Harris Lewin, University of California, Davis and Chair of the Earth BioGenome Project, said: “The Earth BioGenome Project can be viewed as infrastructure for the new biology. Having the roadmap, the blueprints for all living species of eukaryotes will be a tremendous resource for new discoveries, understanding the rules of life, how evolution works, new approaches for the conservation of rare and endangered species, and provide new resources for researchers in agricultural and medical fields.”

The EBP has made extraordinary progress in the last year leading up to the official launch.  A collaboration of 17 institutions from across the globe, including the USA, United Kingdom, China, Germany, Australia, Denmark and Brazil, has come together and signed a Memorandum of Understanding that commits each institution to work together toward the common goals of the project. It is expected that additional partner institutions, organisations and communities will join as the project progresses.

Professor Belov said: “Off the back of the sequencing the koala genome, Australian researchers plan to sequence 50 of Australia’s most endangered animals over the next five years.”

That project – the 50 in 5 initiative – will be led by Professor Belov, Dr Rebecca Johnson from the Australian Museum Research Institute, Professor Marilyn Renfree from the University of Melbourne and Professor Marc Wilkins from UNSW. The effort will be supported by researchers at University of California, Davis. The initiative also has in-principle support from the threatened species units at state and federal level.

“This genomic data will provide the foundation for strategic genetic management of small, isolated populations of iconic and unique marsupials, amphibians and birds, including the bilby, numbat, orange-bellied parrot, red handfish and plains-wanderer.

“The Earth BioGenome Project allows us to join a global network of experts, tap into their expertise and computational pipelines, and achieve our goals much more quickly than we could if working alone.”

This project will build on recent achievements of sequencing sets of species’ genomes for the first time. For example, the Vertebrate Genomes Project, which aims to sequence the genetic code of all extant vertebrates, released the genomes of 14 species, including bat and fish species, the Canadian Lynx and Kakapo.

The Sanger Institute will lead the UK contribution to the EBP by sequencing all 66,000 eukaryotic species across the British Isles, in a project known as the Darwin Tree of Life Project.

Professor Sir Mike Stratton, Director of the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: “Globally, more than half of the vertebrate population has been lost in the past 40 years, and 23,000 species face the threat of extinction in the near future. Using the biological insights we will get from the genomes of all eukaryotic species, we can look to our responsibilities as custodians of life on this planet, tending life on Earth in a more informed manner using those genomes, at a time when nature is under considerable pressure, not least from us.”

Sir Jim Smith, Director of Science at Wellcome, said: “When the Human Genome Project began 25 years ago, we could not imagine how the DNA sequence produced back then would transform research into human health and disease today. Embarking on a mission to sequence all life on Earth is no different. From nature we shall gain insights into how to develop new treatments for infectious diseases, identify drugs to slow ageing, generate new approaches to feeding the world or create new bio materials.”

Available for interview: Professor Katherine Belov, Dr Rebecca Johnson, Professor Marilyn Renfree, Professor Marc Wilkins, Dr Carolyn Hogg (Wildlife Genomics Group)

Notes to Editors:

*Eukaryotic species (animal, plant, protozoa and fungi) are organisms whose cells have a nucleus enclosed within membranes, unlike prokaryotes, which are unicellular organisms that lack a membrane-bound nucleus, mitochondria or other membrane-bound organelles (Bacteria and Archaea).

For more information on the University of Sydney’s Australasian Wildlife Genomics Group, visit:

For more information on the Vertebrates Genome Project, visit:

For more information on the genomic research at the Australian Museum, visit:

The Earth BioGenome Project activities are being funded by the participating organisations as well as private foundations, government organisations and crowd-funding sources. Participating institutions are committed to raising funds to complete the project in 10 years. Significant funds have already been raised to meet the $US600 million goal necessary to complete Phase 1 of the project, to produce about 9000 reference quality genomes across all taxonomic families.

Partners and participating communities (The joining of project participants is ongoing)

Institutions (Memorandum of Understanding executed):

·         Australian Museum

·         Baylor College of Medicine

·         BioPlatforms Australia

·         Beijing Genomics Institute at Shenzhen, China

·         George Washington University

·         Natural History Museum of Denmark

·         Max-Planck Society

·         Novim Group, USA

·         Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, UK

·         SpaceTime Ventures, Brazil

·         University of California, Davis, USA

·         University of California, Santa Cruz

·         University of Santiago, Chile

·         University of Florida, USA

·         University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA

·         University of Sydney, Australia

·         Wellcome Sanger Institute, UK

Affiliated communities, regional and national projects:

·         1000 Fungal Genomes Project (1KFG)

·         Global Invertebrates Genome Alliance (GIGA)

·         5000 Insect Genomes (i5K)

·         Ag100 Pests (USDA)

·         10,000 Plants Project (10KP)

·         10,000 bird genomes (B10K)

·         Genome 10K

·         Oz Mammals Genome Project (OMG)

·         Darwin Tree of Life (UK)

·         LOEWE Centre for Translational Biodiversity Genomics

·         University of California Consortium for the Earth BioGenome Project (CalEBP)

·         1000 Chilean Genomes

·         Taiwan BioGenome Project

·         Global Genome Initiative (Smithsonian)/Global Genome Biodiversity Network

The EBP will coordinate currently independent biodiversity genome sequencing projects and organizations involved in specimen collection, including in Australia, Brazil, Chile, Columbia, Denmark, Germany, Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Coordination functions will include planning, strategy, communications and funding. The EBP aims to achieve common standards across all taxonomic groups of eukaryotes for sample collection, DNA sequencing, annotation and genome analysis.

Selected websites:

Earth BioGenome Project

Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology

University of California, Davis Genome Center
The UC Davis Genome Center serves the Omics needs of a large community of scientists, government and industry partners. State-of-the-art facilities for genome sequencing, gene expression analysis, an NIH-funded metabolomics core, proteomics and bioinformatics support research activities of more than full-time 40 faculty members involved in fundamental and translational research on agriculture, the environment and human health. The Genome Center is the current administrative home of the Earth BioGenome Project.

The Wellcome Sanger Institute
The Wellcome Sanger Institute is one of the world's leading genome centres. Through its ability to conduct research at scale, it is able to engage in bold and long-term exploratory projects that are designed to influence and empower medical science globally. Institute research findings, generated through its own research programmes and through its leading role in international consortia, are being used to develop new diagnostics and treatments for human disease. To celebrate its 25th year in 2018, the Institute is sequencing 25 new genomes of species in the UK. Find out more at or follow @sangerinstitute

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  • Professor Katherine Belov
    Professor Katherine Belov

    Australia's representative at the launch of the Earth BioGenome Project in London is Professor Katherine Belov from the University of Sydney. Professor Belov helped map the koala genome and is conducting research into the genetics of the Tasmanian devil's facial cancer.

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  • Professor Katherine Belov and Dr Rebecca Johnston
    Professor Katherine Belov and Dr Rebecca Johnston

    Professor Katherine Belov (left) from the University of Sydney and Dr Rebecca Johnston from the Australian Museum Research Institute.

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  • Mapping the koala's genome

    The University of Sydney, Australian Museum and UNSW in July announced the genomic sequencing of the koala.

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