‘And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female.’
If you haven’t guessed it already, I am of course referencing Noah’s Ark. The famous vessel that carried two of every animal to ensure they survived the wrath of God.
Whether the tale is fact or fiction doesn’t matter, it’s one large project. More importantly, it is also a noble one. Noah was entrusted with the survival of all life on the planet.
Who knows, maybe we do really owe Noah for the rich animal life on Earth today. Though personally I wouldn’t wager on it.
However, what matters is that we have such a rich diversity of life on this planet. And in recent years we have finally begun to really understand just how valuable this life is.
Biotechnology as we know it wouldn’t exist if we didn’t have such a huge array of materials to work with.
Our medicine, food, our entire ecosystem is only possible thanks to life as we know it. And every day we find new ways to use that life to help our lives. It’s a very poetic circle of life in a way I suppose.
Now though, some researchers are aiming to conduct their own Noah-esque project. A massive undertaking that aims to account for all life on Earth. Not necessarily to save it, but to help us understand it.
It’s called the Earth BioGenome Project (EBP), and its aim is simple, although very large.
The goal is to sequence the DNA of all eukaryotic life. Which simply means recording the DNA of every single living organism on the planet.
A genomic record of all plants and animals ever.
No small feat
To give you some perspective, there is somewhere between 10–15 million eukaryotic species on Earth. And the EBP project aims to find them all.
In total, it’s expected to cost US$4.7 billion to make it happen. Taking roughly a decade to complete the overall process.
It would also have to be a joint effort across the entire globe. A project that would require collaboration with almost every country in the world.
To date we’ve only sequenced roughly 15,000 genomes. Less than 0.2% of all life on the planet. Clearly, we’re quite a way off of the goal, but that is why researchers are proposing the project.
It’s a moonshot project for biology that hasn’t been seen since the original Human Genome Project (HGP). A similar genome sequencing endeavour that sought to categorise all the genes in us. Listing the roughly 20,500 genes within a human being.
The HGP took 13 years, and cost US$2.7 billion at the time (roughly US$4.8 billion today). Thankfully today the equipment and the process is a lot more efficient. Which is why the EBP is even feasible.
But it’s the success of the HGP that is expected to help encourage funding for the new EBP as well.
As of right now, this project is just a proposal. No one has committed to it just yet. But the cost benefit could be staggering. That is, if it proves to be as successful as the HGP.
For instance, the HGP birthed an entire industry. A sector that has generated nearly US$1 trillion in economic activity. Meaning lots of jobs, lots of new businesses, lots of new research. The return on investment was estimated to be a staggering 141:1 in the US alone.
A perfect example of the kind of incredible impact that moonshot projects can have. And the researchers expect that the EBP could yield an even bigger return.
After all, it would be an entire genomic encyclopaedia. A wealth of information that could lead to new drugs, new sources of food, or even new biological materials. As the researchers conclude:
‘The greatest legacy of the EBP will be the gift of knowledge — a complete Digital Library of Life that contains the collective biological intelligence of 3.5 billion years of evolutionary history. This knowledge will guide future discoveries for generations and may ultimately determine the survival of life on our planet.’
A new era of biotechnology
I genuinely hope the world can agree to undertake this endeavour. It won’t be easy, and it’s going to take a lot of resources, but it would be incredible.
We would be able to decipher some of the mysteries of life. Biotechnology as we know it would almost be obsolete. The beginning of a new era of understanding about the world around us.
The problem is, someone has to be willing to take the chance to make it happen.
Right now, the EBP is just a proposal. A pitch designed to get governments around the world excited by the possibilities. Without funding it will go nowhere. A missed opportunity that will be remembered as a ‘what if’…
Someone is going to have to step up to the plate.
The EBP needs its ‘Noah’. Someone who can make this project happen. Someone who has the means to provide the funding and the assistance to make this project a reality.
In all likelihood it will have to be a government rather than just one person. Perhaps even multiple governments. Either way, the project needs commitment.
I don’t doubt that there will be challenges. No project of this scale ever runs smoothly. But it’s a chance that we should be willing to take as a species.
It really could bring us closer to understanding what ‘life’ really is.
Editor, Tech Insider