Genetically Sequencing All Life on Earth – The Earth Biogenome Project
Planet earth is thought to have formed approximately 4.5 billion years ago from clouds of matter as a result of gravity. Just 500 million years after formation, self replicating organic molecules arose which eventually gave rise to life as we know it. Since its origins, life has shaped our planet. Today earth remains the only celestial body known to harbor life.
We live on a very special rock. It is the perfect distance from the sun and has an iron core that forms a magnetic field, deflecting harmful solar radiation. There is an abundance of water, life’s universal ingredient. Our atmosphere helps regulate earths temperature, shields us from asteroids, and allows respiration for oxygen dependent creatures like ourselves. When humans first looked back at earth from the moon, we finally realized what a paradise we have. Those humans lucky enough to view earth from space are intimately aware of this.
For thousands of years humans have used ingenuity, tools, and machines to conquer the natural world. We have established dominance over all other life forms and put survival pressure on virtually every other species on our planet. We destroy their habitats, hunt them to extinction, poison the sea, pollute the atmosphere, and continue to practice energy and manufacturing practices which are toxic to natural ecosystems. While a few select species benefit from humans, such as crows, deer, and pigeons, most species are on a decline or have already become extinct.
We make so many movies about evil space aliens coming to earth and trying to destroy us. Think Independence Day and Mars Attacks. In these movies, humans are always both the victims and the heroes. The sad part is on earth, humans are these evil aliens. Earth is filled with so many intelligent life forms including whales, great apes, and elephants. Human are killing these smart creatures, destroying, and poisoning their habitats. While we may be able to avoid eating ocean fish with toxic levels of mercury, Orcas cannot. The things we do to the natural world are unforgivable.
Since the origin of life on planet earth, there have been at least 5 mass extinctions among numerous other extinction events. A mass extinction occurs when the biodiversity, or total number of species on earth is drastically reduced in a geologically small amount of time. There are a number of theories for why such mass extinctions periodically occur. Asteroid impacts, gigantic volcanic eruptions (flood basalt), sea level changes, mega-continents, global warming, global cooling, and nearby supernovas have all been cited as potential reasons. Currently the earth is undergoing another mass extinction event. However, this time natural disasters are not to blame, we are.
The reality is that the surface of the planet probably isn’t big enough for 7 billion people. Especially when these people live in 3000 square foot homes, drive large automobiles, and love turning natural paradises into parking lots. Our engineering capabilities are literally leveling mountains, partitioning ecosystems into tiny parcels through vast road networks, and leaving behind waste products that we do not know how to handle. Humans and our relationship with our planet have reached a breaking point which is currently manifesting as a massive biodiversity collapse. Our children’s children will live in a desolate wasteland if we continue on our current trajectory. The way we are currently living is just not sustainable. As things continue to get worse, more and more people are coming to terms with this sobering fact. Sadly, most of these people are young. The older generation currently in power seems largely oblivious to the environmental catastrophe currently ensuing. These individuals will soon be dead. All of us young people and our children, will be left with the consequences.
So, you might be feeling down having read the first 6 paragraphs and, in reality, you probably should be. But I am optimistic. I do not think our fate is sealed. While many species have already become extinct, many still exist. It is not too late to clean up our oceans, our air, our land, and to change the way we live. Technology and innovation will allow us this luxury. Not insurance or investments products. We need our smartest minds coming up with solutions to earths biggest problems and right now earths biggest problem is us.
Not only do we need to find innovative ways to clean up our mess. We also need to get large numbers of people off of this rock. It is time for humans to take the great leap and start initiating colonies on other celestial bodies. This will start with the moon and mars. Like the first European colonies in North America, this will be difficult, expensive, and many people will be lost. But we have to make this leap in order to assure the survival of our species and the health of our planet.
About 10 years ago, I came up with a bright idea. I called it the Biodiversity Project. My aspiration was to collect and code the genetic material of every living species on planet earth. At that time, the technology was not quite ready. On top of this, I did not have any funding or help. The good news is that brilliant people had already started thinking about this and working on it, even at that time.
The earth biogenome project (earthbiogenome.org) has a lofty goal which they describe as a moonshot for biology. They hope to sequence all known eukaryotic species on earth in the next 10 years. Eukaryotes have cells with a nucleus and include humans, other animals, plants, fungi, and protozoa. There may be as many as 15 million eukaryotic species on earth, but we are currently only aware of approximately 1.5 million. As it costs about 1000$ to sequence one eukaryotic genome, the cost is estimated to be around 4.7 billion US dollars. Amazingly, this is less than the cost of sequencing the first human genome in today’s US dollars. Since the human genome project return on investment has been estimated to be 100 to 1000-fold, the completion of this project could represent a financial boon. But the information obtained will be so much more important than money alone.
The earth biogenome project cites some sobering statistics. Things like 52% of vertebrate specie (animals with a backbone) populations have been lost in the last 40 years. Stated more simply, the number of animals on the planet is less than half of what it was just 40 years ago! Twenty-three thousand known species are threatened with extinction and less than 0.2% of eukaryotic species have been sequenced. But what is most alarming are the things we do not know. The reality is that many species are becoming extinct before they are ever discovered. Likely daily at this point.
So, why should we obtain and sequence this genetic material? The answers are numerous. It will give us a better understanding of the tree of life and how species are related. It will facilitate the development of new medical therapeutics, fuel sources, and biological materials. It will generate new ways of feeding people. It will also give us a snapshot of life on earth at this time. This will allow us to measure how things are changing regarding biodiversity in the coming years. Right now, we are totally blind! This is a bad place to be.
However, like most scientific endeavors many of the benefits are not yet known, because they will be discovered in real time as a result of the process of science. When we started launching rockets into space we weren’t thinking about Global positioning, phone services, and high-speed internet, they simply came along with the science. This is how research and development works. We look for answers, only to find magnificent things we had never thought of. This is why the country that spends the most money on research and development usually rules the world. Until 2019 it was the United States. Now it is China.
Every time a species becomes extinct, we lose important information. This information will never be available for future generations that may have more powerful analysis tools then we have today. So, we do not even really know what we are losing.
As the biogenome project sequences the known species, it plans to also discover and sequence those organisms which are yet unknown. The information that will come from this project will be a gift for both humanity and life itself for years to come.
While the biogenome project focuses on eukaryotes, this is just the tip of the iceberg as far as life on earth goes. The vast majority of species on earth are bacteria and archaea, known collectively as prokaryotes. The Earth microbiome project is currently working on characterizing all such prokaryotic life on the planet. This is an even loftier goal and one which will certainly bring unprecedented value to the human species.
Simply put, sequencing the genomes of all life on earth will create technological, ecological, and financial advances, beyond what we are currently able to imagine. On top of this it will give us a global picture of life on earth at this time, which we can then use for comparison in future studies. Just sequencing the known eukaryotic species is a herculean task. Adding on the unknown species and prokaryotic species is not possible at this time. However, in the very near future, it will be and should be sought after.
Humans need to stop destroying our beautiful planet. Instead, we need to take our place as stewards of the natural world. When we do this, we will truly be an intelligent species. Until then, we are just evil alien primates destroying a paradise.
The reality is that sequencing all life on earth is just the beginning. A genomic sequence provides a lot of detail, but not the whole story. Genes form proteins, which, to form and function properly, require the proper environment. Just knowing the gene sequence will not necessarily allow us to someday recreate the organism. We need a living representative. We also need to understand the environment the species came from in order to truly understand the lifeform. Humans will always be tied to earth, just like cactuses will always be tied to the American desert.
As we humans take the great leap into the next great frontier of space, we are going to have to bring other species with us in order to survive. Our microbiome and plants to eat will be essential. But we are also going to want to bring other species, sometimes solely for their beauty and the health benefits that nature can bring us. In fact, as we learn to engineer celestial bodies to accommodate life, we will likely wish to bring as many species as are left on earth with us. This life will bring so much joy to our future colonies in the great beyond. In this future paradigm, we will literally be guardians and ambassadors, not just for humans, but for every species of life left on the planet earth.
Celebrate life! The information it contains is literally the most valuable and unique resource we have. We have found numerous non-living resources present in vast quantities all over the galaxy. To date, life has only been found on earth. Let’s cherish it!
Thank you for reading!
Bill Brandenburg, MD
September 14, 2020