Advances in genomic science provide an important means to address the challenges of describing, identifying and tracking species and their relationships. BGE uses two types of genomic data: whole genome sequences and DNA barcodes.
Whole genome sequences provide insights into diversity at the genetic level, into how organisms function, and how they are likely to be affected by, or adapt to, environmental change. Complete, curated, reference genomes can be used to target future research – for instance into new drugs, crop species or biotechnological applications.
DNA barcodes – short parts of the genome that can act as unique identifiers for species (just like a supermarket barcode) – are a rapid and cost-effective tool for telling species apart. They can even be used for organisms too small to see, and organisms mixed together in samples of soil or water. This means they can be used to track and monitor how life on Earth is responding to environmental pressures and conservation efforts, on an unprecedented scale. For example, we can use barcodes to count the number of pollinator species on a mountain, the number of invasive marine species in a harbour, or to identify the source of a herbal medicine or hardwood dining table.
Genome sequencing and DNA barcoding use many of the same methods and technologies. However, whole genome sequencing usually relies upon samples collected fresh from the wild, ideally frozen in liquid nitrogen until their DNA can be extracted for sequencing. Barcoding – because it sequences much shorter lengths of DNA – can sometimes be achieved with specimens stored in museums or herbaria for many years. This has the advantages that the specimens are already identified, and there is no costly and time-consuming field collection.
For more information on the rationale and applications of genomic science, see this special issue of PNAS: The Earth BioGenome Project: The Launch of a Moonshot for Biology