SCIENTISTS from Edinburgh are playing a key role in a multibillion-pound international project to sequence the genome of all the 1.5 million animals, plants, fungi and other forms of life on Earth.

The Earth BioGenome Project (EBP) – operating in the UK as the Darwin Tree of Life Project – is expected to revolutionise our understanding of biology and evolution, and is aimed at strengthening efforts to conserve, protect and restore biodiversity across the planet.

All the data collated in the anticipated 10 years of the project will be stored in public domain databases and made freely available for research use. The total amount of data is expected to be on what is known as the exascale – which is more than all that accumulated by Twitter, YouTube or astronomy.

The EBP, which was launched in London yesterday, is expected to cost $4.7 billion (£3.6bn).

It will ultimately see the creation of a new foundation for biology to spearhead solutions for preserving biodiversity and sustaining human societies.

The project will read the genetic code of all of Earth’s eukaryotes – multiple-cell species whose DNA is bound inside a nucleus – using recent and future advances in sequencing and information technology.

These will enable the reading and interpretation of tens of thousands of genomes every year by partner institutions around the world.

Fewer than 3500 – around 0.2% – of all known eukaryotic species have had their genome sequenced to date and no more than 100 are of reference quality.

One key partner in the project is Edinburgh Genomics, which is based at the renowned Roslin Institute, in Midlothian, and Edinburgh University King’s Buildings campus.

“Having the full genomes of all the organisms we share the planet with will change our ability to understand and care for them,” said Professor Mark Blaxter of Edinburgh Genomics and the university.

“The UK research community has for many years been leading the way in sequencing the DNA of diverse species, and this revolutionary project will transform the science we

can do.”

The Wellcome Sanger Institute is leading the Darwin Tree of Life Project, which will decode the genomes of 66,000 species across the British Isles. It will be supported by Edinburgh Genomics, alongside the Natural History Museum, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, the Earlham Institute and the European Bioinformatics Institute.

Professor Harris Lewin, from the University of California and chair of the EBP working group, said: “The Earth BioGenome Project can be viewed as infrastructure for the new biology.

“Having the roadmap, the blueprints for all living species of eukaryotes will be a tremendous resource for new discoveries, understanding the rules of life, how evolution works, new approaches for the conservation of rare and endangered species, and provide new resources for researchers in agricultural and medical fields.”

A total of 17 organisations from across the globe will take part in the project, which will address some of the most critical challenges facing scientists – achieving a greater understanding of Earth’s biodiversity and the responsible stewarding of its resources.

Overcoming such obstacles requires new scientific knowledge of evolution and interactions among millions of the planet’s organisms.

Professor Sir Mike Stratton, director of the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: “Globally, more than half of the vertebrate population has been lost in the past 40 years, and 23,000 species face the threat of extinction in the near future.

“Using the biological insights we will get from the genomes of all eukaryotic species, we can look to our responsibilities as custodians of life on this planet, tending life on Earth in a more informed manner using those genomes, at a time when nature is under considerable pressure, not least from us.”

Wellcome’s science director, Sir Jim Smith, added: “When the Human Genome Project began 25 years ago, we could not imagine how the DNA sequence produced back then would transform research into human health and disease today. Embarking on a mission to sequence all life on Earth is no different.

“From nature we shall gain insights into how to develop new treatments for infectious diseases, identify drugs to slow ageing, generate new approaches to feeding the world or create new bio materials.”