U of G Part of International 'Genome Zoo' Proposal

November 06, 2009 - News Release

In the most comprehensive study of vertebrate evolution ever attempted an international consortium of scientists - including some from the University of Guelph - is planning to assemble a genomic zoo, a collection of DNA sequences for 10,000 species.

Known as the Genome 10K Project, it involves gathering tissue and DNA specimens from thousands of vertebrates throughout the world, then sequencing the genome of each species to reveal its complete genetic heritage.

The proposal, which was published in the Journal of Heredity, may help protect endangered or threatened species and monitor animals' responses to climate change, pollution, emerging diseases and invasive competitors, said Prof. Robert Hanner of Guelph’s Department of Integrative Biology.

He and departmental colleague Prof. Paul Hebert are among 68 scientists in a group of authors from North and South America, Europe, Asia and Australia involved in the project. Both Guelph researchers are principals in the International Barcode of Life (iBOL) network, under which scientists are building a database to identify species of organisms using a common DNA segment. That bar-coding technology was developed here at Guelph by Hebert, director of the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario.

But unlike DNA barcoding, which uses a small telltale DNA snippet to identify species quickly, whole genome sequencing requires next-generation machines to read the entire sequence of DNA in each species. Current technology and related resources are not yet sophisticated or cheap enough to allow full genome sequencing for so many species, Hanner said.

So as a first step under the Genome 10K proposal, scientists propose collecting tissue and DNA specimens from representative mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians for eventual genome sequencing.

The second step involves raising money to pay for sequencing, analysis and annotation of the sequences. Although costs are unknown, Hanner estimates the project might cost a minimum of about $10 million, given 10,000 genomes being read for roughly $1,000 each — a figure that is low by current standards but predicted to be feasible in the near future, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Various researchers and groups would apply for funding independently.

The G10K group says comparative genomics would help scientists monitor threats to species and develop conservation plans to protect threatened or endangered species.

Already the team has assembled a "virtual collection" of preserved tissues in at least 43 participating institutions, including museums, zoos, universities and research institutes worldwide. Those specimens cover more than 16,000 representative species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fishes. There are about 60,00 living species of vertebrates.

DNA barcoding technology would be used in Guelph and at other participating centres for quality control under the G10K project. Ultimately, genome sequences might also be read at U of G, Hanner said. The BIO houses a next-generation sequencer — among the first installed in Canada — and will develop a centre for biodiversity genomics as part of a BIO expansion plan, he said.

Besides generating new information, the project will require skills and resources in computing and data analysis. Hanner said those are the kinds of skills students are learning in U of G’s new bioinformatics graduate and diploma programs.

More information is available online .

Prof. Robert Hanner
Department of Integrative Biology
Biodiversity Institute of Ontario
519 824-4120, Ext. 53479 or 58596

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, Ext. 53338 or lhunt@uguelph.ca, or Barry Gunn, Ext. 56982 or bagunn@uoguelph.ca.

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