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A new German center will sequence the bombardier beetle's DNA so insect biotechnologists can learn the secrets of the insect's explosive defenses.

Satoshi Kuribayashi/Minden Pictures

Germans provide big boost for sequencing often ignored organisms

One of Germany’s states has provided a big boost for biologists who want to decipher the genomes of organisms that don’t get much attention. This week, the state of Hessen, which includes Frankfurt, awarded its local institutions €17.6 million, the first half of a 7-year grant for sequencing plants, animals, and fungi. The award includes funding for the high-quality sequencing of about 700 organisms, and for the partial sequencing or resequencing of thousands more.

“German scientists are going to take a big step forward in understanding the genomic basis of life,” says W. John Kress, a researcher at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., who helped conceive the Earth BioGenome Project, an ambitious effort to sequence much of life on Earth.

The grant will create the new LOEWE-Zentrum für Translationale Biodiversitätsgenomik (LOEWE-TBG)—loosely translated as the Translational Biodiversity Genomics Excellence Center. It is the brainchild of Axel Janke, Markus Pfenninger, and Steffen Pauls, genomics researchers at the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum in Frankfurt. The center, scheduled to open in January 2018, will involve the museum, Goethe University Frankfurt, the Justus Liebig University Giessen, and the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology.  

The idea, Janke says, is to have “this core facility to make genomics available and easily accessible to groups that do not have access.” For example, as the museum builds its digital biodiversity collection—essentially a genomic database—it will also coordinate sequencing for researchers interested in probing genomes for natural product development. An insect biotechnology group, for instance, would be able to get more insect genomes to work with. A biomonitoring team developing ways to assess plants and animals by collecting DNA in soil and water could tap the center to develop a database of sequences it could use to identify what it finds.

Although some biologists say they would tweak the initial list of species to be sequenced by Janke and his team to include fewer vertebrates and arthropods and more small marine organisms, they are generally pleased with the effort. “In my opinion, genomic resources for invertebrates and nonmodel organisms is long overdue,” says Heather Bracken-Grissom, an evolutionary biologist at Florida International University's Biscayne Bay Campus. “This will greatly improve our knowledge for these underrepresented groups.”

“The project sounds very well conceived, with careful consideration of issues related to genome sequencing quality and species selection to ensure maximum impact,” says Gene Robinson, a behavioral genomics researcher and director of the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois in Urbana.

The new German center could also aid the development of the nascent Earth BioGenome Project, which Robinson, Kress, and other backers envision as a network of sequencing centers; they hope LOEWE-TBG will become a node in that network. Janke is receptive to the idea. “Our questions are similar,” he says.  

The new center also could be boon for Hessen. The state already hosts the Biodiversity and Climate Research Center, begun in 2008 under the LOEWE funding program; it now employs 160 people. And this month’s LOEWE grants include €18.8 million for a second new center, called DRUID—Novel Drug Targets Against Poverty-Related and Neglected Tropical Infectious Diseases. The new biodiversity center will also dovetail nicely with an EU-funded project called Comparative Genomics of Non-Model Invertebrates (IGNITE), also set to begin in January. It will help train young scientists in invertebrate genomics.

The biodiversity center “is definitely a very positive sign by the state government of Hessen to promote fundamental science,” says Gert Wörheide, an evolutionary geobiologist at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, Germany. And it “comes at the right time,” he adds, “because funding for fundamental research in many parts of the world is declining.”