By: Alison Cranage
Alongside robots, slime and VR machines, Sanger researchers were at New Scientist Live last week – talking genomes. Sarah Teichmann was sharing the latest on the Human Cell Atlas Project and Peter Campbell finished a wonderful weekend of sharing the greatest stories from science by talking a fascinated audience through the latest on cancer science. On the main stage it was our 25 Genomes Project being shared with an intrigued audience – many keen to understand more about the genomes of 25 UK species, from catfish to blackberries
Julia Wilson and Cordelia Langford from the Sanger Institute took to the stage alongside Tim Littlewood from the Natural History Museum and Fergal Martin from the EMBL-European Bioinformatics Institute. They were discussing the project to sequence the genomes of 25 British species for the first time.
How it all began
Mike Dilger, TV broadcaster and naturalist, was asking the questions – first wondering how the project started.
“Only by understanding these species much better can we ever hope to protect our planet for ourselves and all the other species with which we share it.”
Mike Dilger, BBC One Show broadcaster and naturalist
Julia, Associate Director at the Sanger Institute, explained: “It came about because it’s our 25th anniversary. We celebrated with some parties, but we also wanted to leave a scientific legacy. And at the same time we wanted to celebrate the staff that we have at Sanger who are experts in DNA sequencing.”
It was a tough task to narrow down the ~66,000 species in the UK to just 25.
So the Sanger Institute connected with the Natural History Museum to help. Home to over 80 million specimens from around the world, Tim is providing the link between the Sanger Institute and natural historians who have detailed knowledge of the 66,000 UK species.
“Every species has a story to tell – it needs its champion.”
Tim Littlewood, Head of Life Sciences from the Natural History Museum
Categories of species helped the team to focus; flourishing, cryptic, iconic, flourishing, and floundering. And every species had to have a valid scientific reason for sequencing its genome.
Julia continued: “We also realised that the great British public are fascinated by the rich heritage and diversity of life in the UK and so we wanted a project that would resonate not just with our scientists and scientists beyond but a project that would pique the interest of the general public as well.”
So the Public Engagement team at the Wellcome Genome Campus got together with “I’m A Scientist Get Me Out Of Here” to organise a public vote for the final five species – one from each category.
Rising to the challenge
Mike asked the panel about the challenges of sequencing such a diverse range of creatures.
There was talk of ‘exploding flatworm goop’, tough plant skins and ‘difficult cellular structures’.
“We’re outside our comfort zone,” Julia admitted. But that’s a good thing and is helping us explore and learn how to overcome these new challenges.
Cordelia Langford, Head of Scientific Operations at the Sanger Institute described how the sequencing teams have had to change and optimise protocols to deal with the new organisms – but the learnings have had huge benefits.
“Sequencing of 25 genomes is setting the foundation for an enormously ambitious future. Our partnership with PacBio will help develop technology we need. We’ll learn a lot from the challenges of this project.”
The teams are applying this new knowledge to sequencing human genomes, refining their approach.
The first human genome took 13 years and billions of dollars. Now, the Sanger sequences the equivalent of a human genome in just 24 minutes, at a fraction of the cost.
Fergal described the excitement of sequencing a species for the first time. “It’s like a jigsaw. We have tiny fractions filled in. We don’t know what the big picture looks like. Once we fill it in we will have new questions, new science.”
Why sequence these genomes? What might you find?
Mike turned the panel’s attention to the ‘why’ of the project. Why sequence a genome at all? What do we expect to learn?
Tim was excited about the opportunities: “A massive amount of data is about to turn up. It’s going to reveal aspects of evolution we’ve not even dreamt of.”
Each species has secrets hidden in its genome. Robins can ‘see’ the magnetic fields of the earth – but we don’t know how. Starfish can re-grow limbs if they lose them. Grey squirrels are resistant to the squirrel pox virus whereas native red squirrels aren’t – and they’re dying out. Sequencing the genome will help researchers answer these puzzles. It will also drive research into conservation, climate change and evolution.
Fergal talked about how important it is that the data is publicly available for anyone to use.
“The sooner the data is public, the sooner science can be done on it.”
Fergal Martin, Ensembl Genebuild Project Leader, EMBL-European Bioinformatics Institute
The EBI will be storing and publishing the data for the project. They will also be annotating the genomes – marking on the position of genes and other features.
“It shortcuts downstream research. Annotating takes a couple of weeks for us. An individual would take weeks or a year, it allows other researchers to ask more questions,” added Fergal.
Peering into the crystal ball…
Mike asked the panel to consider the future. It’s 15 years since the human genome project was completed. Now 25 new species are being sequenced. What’s next?
Tim described life as variations on a theme, where every species is built from a blueprint of DNA. Sequencing different species will allow researchers to compare those blueprints, to understand the genomic diversity of the UK, and beyond.
Julia summed up: “We’re on the precipice of something even more interesting. Can we scale the software, can we scale the storage? Can we visualise the future? What questions should be asked?
“It’s a feasible and tantalising prospect to scale up even further. Why not think about sequencing 66,000 species?”
About the author:
Alison Cranage is a science writer for the Wellcome Sanger Institute.