Ambitious project to map genomes of all life on British Isles funded by Wellcome

An unprecedented insight to the diverse range of species on the British Isles will be made possible by Wellcome funding to the Darwin Tree of Life Project.

The £9.4 million funding will support the 10 institutions involved in the project to launch the first phase of sequencing all the species on the British Isles. Teams will collect and barcode around 8,000 key British species, and deliver high-quality genomes of 2,000 species. 

This work will act as a launchpad for a larger ambition to, ultimately, sequence all species on Earth. Exploring the genomes of these organisms will give an unprecedented insight into how life on Earth evolved and uncover new genes, proteins and metabolic pathways as well as new drugs for infectious and inherited diseases. 

And at a time when many species are under threat from climate change and human development, these data will also help characterise, catalogue and support conservation of global biodiversity for future generations.

From the small fraction of the Earth’s species that have been sequenced, enormous advances have been made in knowledge and biomedicine. From plants, a number of lifesaving drugs have been discovered and are now being created in the lab – such as artemisinin for malaria and taxol for cancer.

The consortium of 10 research institutes, museums and associated organisations ultimately aims to sequence the genetic code of 60,000 species that live in the British Isles

The institutes involved in the project are: 

  • University of Cambridge 
  • Earlham Institute (EI)
  • University of Edinburgh
  • EMBL’s European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI)
  • The Marine Biological Association (Plymouth) 
  • Natural History Museum
  • Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
  • Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
  • Wellcome Sanger Institute.

Working together the centres will identify and collect specimens, set up new pipelines and workflows to process large numbers of species through DNA preparation, sequencing, assembly, gene finding and annotation.

New methods will be developed for high-throughput and high-quality assembly of genomes and their annotation, and data will be shared openly through existing data sharing archives and project specific portals.

These data will be of enormous value to the international scientific community, including those working in life sciences, medicine, alternative energy and climate research. The data will also act as a global resource for public engagement experts, naturalists, citizen scientists, university students and schools.

Professor Mark Blaxter, Lead of the Darwin Tree of Life Programme at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: "The Darwin Tree of Life Project will change biology forever, delivering new insights into the numerous animals, plants, fungi and protists that call the British Isles home. The impact of this work will be equivalent to the effect the Human Genome Project has had on human health over the last 25 years."

Michael Dunn, Head of Genetics and Molecular Sciences at Wellcome, said: "The mission to sequence all life on the British Isles is ambitious, but by bringing together this diverse group of organisations with expertise in sample collection, DNA sequencing and data processing we believe that we have the right team to achieve this.  We’ll gain new insights into nature that will help develop new treatments for infectious diseases, identify drugs to slow ageing, generate new approaches to feeding the world or create new bio materials."