Instead of sequencing the genome of one organism at a time, what if you could sequence an entire ecosystem at once? In 2011, the Smithsonian Institution launched the Global Genome Initiative (GGI) to collect and study Earth’s biodiversity – the variety of life on Earth – and to increase access to genomic information about the world’s species. Today GGI includes a global network of biorepositories, storage facilities for holding samples, as well as research organizations that are focused on studying and conserving life on our planet. GGI collecting expeditions are conducted only with the full permission of the countries involved, with specimens stored in local facilities with clear agreements ensuring that those nations benefit from related genomics research.
Take, for instance, the Moorea Biocode Project, which is focused on collecting representatives of every plant, animal, fungus, and algae species on the island of Moorea (in French Polynesia) and in its coastal waters, and then barcoding their DNA. This methodology uses a short genetic marker (a “barcode”) from an organism's DNA to identify it as belonging to a particular species. Tropical ecosystems are of special interest to bioconservation scientists, who study the diversity of life on Earth and are concerned with conserving its complexity. Tropical reefs are particularly sensitive to stressors such as climate change and invasive species.
DNA barcoding has revealed twice the amount of diversity that researchers would normally find in their sampling expeditions.
After taking samples from the environment – often in several collecting events or batches – researchers grind up the material from groups of organisms, isolate their DNA, then generate and analyze the barcoding sequence information of the whole ecosystem in bulk. This comprehensive method brings us closer to a complete picture than that obtained with the one-by-one sampling methods used in the past. Indeed, the DNA barcoding approach has revealed twice the amount of diversity that researchers would normally find in their sampling expeditions. From year to year and site to site, DNA sampling also identifies differences in the number of species, changes in organisms found within the reef, and the meaning of those changes for the overall health of the reef.
Another goal of GGI in the next five years is to isolate and freeze high-quality DNA samples from across the Tree of Life and make these collections available for researchers who agree to specific rules and regulations to study the collections. While researchers continue to preserve the actual specimens they collect, they now also save a tissue sample for DNA sequencing and keep more tissue frozen for future research. The project has already collected a large number of samples from animal, bacterial, and plant tissues. As the number of these samples increases, they will provide a genomic library of species to be used for research in fields as diverse as medicine, pharmacology, and agriculture.
Additional GGI goals include increasing the ability of researchers to sequence and analyze large numbers of genomes and training the next generation of genomic researchers who will study the Earth’s biodiversity.
All images courtesy of Moorea Biocode Project, Arthur Anker