WASHINGTON, D.C.—When it comes to genome sequencing, visionaries like to throw around big numbers: There’s the UK Biobank, for example, which promises to decipher the genomes of 500,000 individuals, or Iceland’s effort to study the genomes of its entire human population. Yesterday, at a meeting here organized by the Smithsonian Initiative on Biodiversity Genomics and the Shenzhen, China–based sequencing powerhouse BGI, a small group of researchers upped the ante even more, announcing their intent to, eventually, sequence “all life on Earth.”
Their plan, which does not yet have funding dedicated to it specifically but could cost at least several billions of dollars, has been dubbed the Earth BioGenome Project (EBP). Harris Lewin, an evolutionary genomicist at the University of California, Davis, who is part of the group that came up with this vision 2 years ago, says the EBP would take a first step toward its audacious goal by focusing on eukaryotes—the group of organisms that includes all plants, animals, and single-celled organisms such as amoebas.
That strategy, and the EBP’s overall concept, found a receptive audience at BioGenomics2017, a gathering this week of conservationists, evolutionary biologists, systematists, and other biologists interested in applying genomics to their work. “This is a grand idea,” says Oliver Ryder, a conservation biologist at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research in California. “If we really want to understand how life evolved, genome biology is going to be part of that.”