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'Moonshot' for botany

Alan Flurry

A new Earth BioGenome Project paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences highlights the progress of plant genomics and includes a roadmap for the enormous task of sequencing the genomes of plants worldwide. The Earth BioGenome Project is a federated initiative promoting sequencing the genomes of all multicellular species on our planet. The paper, co-authored by professor of plant biology James Leebens-Mack, describes how the massive global initiative is progressing:

The effort required to sequence plant genomes is no small task, but it is the goal of the Earth BioGenome Project, “a ‘moonshot’ for biology, [that] aims to sequence, catalog, and characterize the genomes of all of Earth’s eukaryotic biodiversity [including plants, animals, and fungi] over a period of ten years.” The article, one of ten published this week in a Special Feature in PNAS, is co-authored by an international group of plant scientists and outlines a map that will help researchers worldwide achieve this ambitious goal.

An organism’s genome contains all the instructions necessary to carry out the processes of life and it should come as no surprise that genomes are extremely complex. Sequencing and assembling whole genomes will allow researchers to understand how species are related to and have evolved from other species; how they perform essential biological functions; and how they interact with and respond to their environments. Sequencing whole plant genomes is especially complicated compared with other groups of organisms for several reasons, but largely because there are so many species of plants and they have highly variable and often extremely complex genomes.

Consider that as of today’s date, there are just 883 whole genome sequences available for green plants compared with 2,019 whole genome sequences available for vertebrates; yet there are more than 400,000 species of green plants compared with just 73,340 species of vertebrates. The variation in genome size among plants is also astounding—some plants have a genome as small as just 65,000 individual nucleotides (the molecules that make up the four “base pairs” in the genetic code) and as large as nearly 150 billion nucleotides. There is incredible complexity involved with understanding plant genomes.

The PNAS article also includes a brief description of The Open Green Genomes Initiative, a comparative plant genome initiative Leebens-Mack leads with DOE's Joint Genome Institute (JGI). Important work on a global scale to unlock the diversity of life all around us.

Image: Creative Commons

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