Sampling for the Darwin Tree of Life project

On Thursday I spent a day on-site with Ryan Mitchell (expert on flies) and Mike Wilson (world expert on plant hoppers), looking for interesting species for the Darwin Tree of Life (DToL) project. DToL is a very exciting £150M Wellcome Trust funded project with the aim of scanning the genomes of all UK species … or at least 66,000 eukaryote species.

COVID19 has delayed the fieldwork but the team has been working on the protocols and testing their procedures from home. Genome scanning required very high quality DNA and the gold-standard is that specimens need to be stored in liquid-nitrogen cooled vessels. Obviously this is very difficult to arrange when you’re out in the field but I was trying out a new liquid called DESS, which is looking very promising as a DNA preservative.

The experts are developing new scanning equipment; discovering new chemicals / reagents and improving their read accuracy every month. Whereas it took 13 years to decode a human genome we are now at a level where we can get the genome of a relatively large (lentil-sized) insect in a day. When the project finishes in 10 years we should be able to read even the tiniest of creatures.

“Why do we need to read all these genomes?”, I heard you ask. Well data is the key to discovery and with every batch of genomes we read we are discovering new things about species that we have taken for granted for centuries. Not only can we extract their bar-code, but we can see the entire DNA code and compare it with related species to look for better ways to measure genetic diversity. We can also locate specific genes and learn what they code for AND exactly which proteins they will create, which could have huge impacts on medical research, to name but one use.

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