Smithsonian freezers will preserve the diversity of life.

Smithsonian freezers will preserve the diversity of life.

Donald E. Hurlbert/Smithsonian Institution

Smithsonian jumps into biodiversity genomics with new institute

On the heels of two vast analyses of the genomes of both birds and insects, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., has announced that it will launch a virtual biodiversity genomics institute to accelerate efforts to capture and catalog all the DNA from Earth’s flora and fauna.

The Smithsonian is already devoting $10 million a year toward genomics research in evolutionary, diversity, conservation, and ecological studies. By formally tying all those efforts together, the Smithsonian hopes to “mobilize [its] internal troops”—about 100 scientists—to do even more, says John Kress, the Smithsonian’s interim under secretary for science. At the same time, he hopes the Smithsonian will take a lead in coordinating biodiversity genomics worldwide. Toward that goal, he hopes to raise $100 million over the next 10 years.

“The Smithsonian is one of the very few institutions around the world that are able to do this,” says Erich Jarvis, a neurobiologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who coordinated the sequencing of the genomes of 48 bird species. For one, the Smithsonian already has quite a diverse collection: hundreds of thousands of museum specimens and thousands of blood samples in 30 special freezers, part of an initiative to freeze 50% of the diversity of life in the next 5 years. For another, the name carries clout. “You need some global leadership, and the Smithsonian is recognized for that,” Jarvis says. It has already partnered with Oak Ridge National Laboratory to develop the bioinformatics power to support the genomics efforts.

The Smithsonian won’t be the first or even the biggest player in biodiversity genomics. Since 2006, Paul Hebert and his Biodiversity Institute of Ontario at the University of Guelph in Canada has been combing the world and cataloging short stretches of DNA called DNA barcodes. The China National Genebank is also carrying out a comprehensive collection of DNA from plants, animals, and microbes for sequencing and study. Indeed, the Smithsonian until now has lagged behind a little, says Stephen O’Brien, a geneticist at St. Petersburg State University in Russia, who has been coordinating a global effort to sequence 10,000 vertebrates. There are parallel projects to sequence thousands of insects, marine invertebrates, and plants. He doesn’t think there needs to be a coordinating institution for all these efforts.

Others disagree. The Smithsonian’s new institute “is a hugely important development for the planet,” Hebert says, as biodiversity genomics needs to be ramping up. “A great tragedy is that we are burning the books of life without even reading them.”