Project to tackle biodiversity crisis using the power of DNA data and genomics launched

September 28, 2022 - 4 minutes
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A project to tackle the biodiversity crisis using DNA data, genomic science that will fundamentally change conservation science and policy has been launched by European experts.

The new pan-European Biodiversity Genomic Europe (BGE) consortium was made public day (September 28) is leading the way with this large-scale application of genomic science. Impacts are predicted to be on a scale similar to those of the Human Genome Project in medicine. The €21 million ($20 million) project is co-funded by the European Commission, as well as the UK and Swiss governments. 

Those involved in the project say time is running out. They have highlighted that an appalling one in four species on the planet are currently threatened with extinction, putting livelihoods, food supplies, and essential water and nutrient cycles at risk.

Degradation of ecosystems

The Biodiversity Genomic Europe consortium says knowledge is of the essence in the fight to reverse this unprecedented loss of species and degradation of ecosystems – but that currently our understanding of how life on Earth functions and responds to environmental pressures is far from complete.

Genomics provides crucial new tools to answer these questions, and the BGE consortium will cause a quantum leap in the use of genomics across the continent.

It says despite centuries of scientific research, an estimated 80% of the world’s species still await scientific discovery and description. Even for described species, telling them apart is often difficult.

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DNA barcoding

Moreover, the consortium says that interactions within and among species, and between species and their environment, create a hugely complex picture from individual to planetary levels. Genomic science is the best hope for success in mapping these interdependencies and predicting how individuals and groups may respond to environmental change.

By bringing together Europe’s key practitioners in two fundamental DNA-based technologies – DNA barcoding and genome sequencing – BGE will streamline the rollout of these methods across Europe.

DNA barcoding uses short sequences of DNA to discriminate between species – analogous to the way conventional barcodes distinguish products in a supermarket. BGE says that with modern genetic sequencing techniques, DNA barcoding has the potential to dramatically accelerate the inventory of life on Earth, providing a basis for global conservation monitoring.

Genome sequencing

At the opposite end of the scale, it says, genome sequencing determines the order of DNA nucleotides – the building blocks of the genetic code – throughout the entire genome of any given species. This enables scientists to identify and locate genes and other features of the genome, creating a comparative map of the code that creates each organism. This provides a full picture of how biological systems function and, crucially, how species respond and adapt to environmental change.

Pete Hollingsworth, director of science at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, and deputy director of BGE, said: “This vital European coalition brings together diverse expertise and infrastructure across two emerging technological streams using the power of DNA and genomic science to help understand and conserve biodiversity, providing the means to tackle some of the biggest challenges facing the planet today.”

The EU’s Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 and the European Green Deal make clear commitments to address challenges such as pollinator decline, the deterioration of key terrestrial, freshwater and marine habitats, and the impact of invasive non-native species on biodiversity.

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Biodiversity Genomic Europe: a major investment in genomic science

The Horizon Europe-funded BGE Consortium – a major investment in European genomic science – provides the means to achieve these aims.

BGE’s project director, Dimitris Koureas (Naturalis Biodiversity Center, The Netherlands) said “We see BGE as a mechanism through which we can go out from the limitations of national investments that we already have in biodiversity genomics and into the European level. We are looking at BGE as a mechanism to build the economies of scope and scale that we need for the future.”

BGE will also collaborate with the Earth BioGenome Project and International Barcode of Life.

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