An international consortium of scientists is proposing the most ambitious project in the history of biology: sequencing the DNA of all known eukaryotic species on Earth.
The initiative, described on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is led by a coordinating council with members from the United States, the European Union, China, Brazil, Canada, Australia and some African countries.
The benefits of the monumental project promise to be a complete transformation of the scientific understanding of life on Earth and a vital new resource for global innovations in medicine, agriculture, conservation, technology and genomics.
The central goal of the Earth BioGenome Project (EBP) is to understand the evolution and organization of life on our planet by sequencing and functionally annotating the genomes of 1.5 million known species of eukaryotes, a massive group that includes plants, animals, fungi and other organisms whose cells have a nucleus that houses their chromosomal DNA.
To date, the genomes of less than 0.2 percent of eukaryotic species or fewer than 15,000 species have been sequenced, according 24 interdisciplinary authors.
The project also seeks to reveal some of the estimated 10 to 15 million unknown species of eukaryotes, most of which are single cell organisms, insects and small animals in the oceans.
Researchers estimate the proposed initiative will take 10 years and cost approximately 4.7 billion U.S. dollars.
Scientists compared it to the hugely successful precedent of the Human Genome Project. It costed roughly 4.8 billion in today's dollars and generated an estimated return-on-investment ratio of 141-to-one.
"The Earth BioGenome Project will give us insight into the history and diversity of life and help us better understand how to conserve it," said Gene Robinson, director of the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois who chairs the project.
Advances in technology have made the project feasible. The cost of whole genome sequencing has declined to about 1,000 dollars for a draft-quality sequence of human genome size and about 30,000 dollars for a reference-quality assembly of the chromosomes of an average eukaryotic genome.
With advances in high-performance computing, data storage and bioinformatics, the high throughput assembly and characterization of genomes is now feasible, according to the researchers.
The completed project is expected to require about one exabyte (one billion gigabytes) of digital storage capacity.
The working group also sees the project as being essential for developing new drugs for infectious and inherited diseases as well as creating new biological synthetic fuels, biomaterials, and food sources for growing human population.
The Earth BioGenome Project also plans to capitalize on the "citizen scientist" movement to collect specimens.
The project will likely enable the development of new technologies, such as portable genetic sequencers and instrumented drones that can go out, identify samples in the field, and bring those samples back to the laboratory.