The recent launch of the Earth Biogeneome Project (EBP) started the clock ticking on yet another of humanity’s moonshot challenges. International collaborations are aiming to sequence the genomes of all known higher organisms (eukaryotic species) in a 10-year timeframe. This task, targeting about two million species, is one of the largest and most ambitious coordinated scientific efforts in the history of biology.

The EBP is made up of a number of collaborations, each one of them focused on specific groups of organisms to sequence; for example, the Darwin Tree of Life is aiming to sequence 70,000 species of the British Islands, the African BioGenome Project is sequencing 100,000 species from the African continent, the European Reference Genome Atlas is aiming to sequence all European species, and the Vertebrate Genome Project is sequencing all known vertebrates.

The genome is the sum total of DNA of an individual. It is transmitted from one gene­ration to another and carries information about the specific form and functioning of an individual. It also carries information about the history of the species, including that of its ancestors. Similar to how computers can be programmed with 1s and zeros, DNA stores information in a code of four letters (molecules).

By sequencing the genome of an organism, scientists would be reading and understanding this information. This data will act as a large resource for different branches of biology, including agriculture, medicine, biodiversity conservation and biomaterial production. All this data is being deposited in international databases and will be freely accessible for research and development.

Bioinformatics is a discipline integrating biology and computer science, concerned with the acquisition, storage, analysis and dissemination of these very large biological datasets, often DNA and protein sequences. Bioinformatics techniques are being used to process large amounts of data generated and extract useful information out of it.

At the Centre of Molecular Medicine and Biobanking of the University of Malta, non-human genomics is taking root through the research project EDGE (Endemic de novo Genomes), financed by MCST’s Research Excellence Programme.

Researchers are sequencing the genomes of two endemic (unique to Malta) plant species, namely the Maltese Sea-lavender (Limonium melitense; Leħjet ix-Xiħ) and Zerafa’s Sea-lavender (Limonium zeraphae; Limonju ta’ Zerafa). These studies involve laboratory techniques and extensive use of bioinformatics. These skills are being acquired through extensive collaborations with international institutions, including the genomics centres of INRAE in France and that of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic.

Further studies being planned on these genomes include investigation of the processes that allow plant growth in salty and nutrient-deprived soils, among others. The skills acquired from this project will be utilised in the study of other endemic species in order to enable us to fully utilise our natural resources.

Dorita Agius is reading for her PhD in Genomics at the Centre for Molecular Medicine and Biobanking of the University of Malta. She lectures in biology at G.F. Abela Junior College. Maria Galea is a student at the Faculty of Science, University of Malta. She is reading for a degree in Biology.

Project EDGE is financed by the Malta Council for Science & Technology, for and on behalf of the Foundation for Science and Technology, through the Research Excellence Programme. The research work is also partly funded by the Tertiary Education Scholarship Scheme.

Sound Bites

•        The asteroid that killed nearly all of the dinosaurs struck Earth during springtime. This conclusion was drawn by an international team of researchers after having examined thin sections, high-resolution synchrotron X-ray scans, and carbon isotope records of the bones of fishes that died less than 60 minutes after the asteroid impacted.

•        The brain has neurons that fire specifically during certain mathematical operations. This is shown by a recent study conducted by the universities of Tübingen and Bonn. The findings indicate that some of the neurons detected are active exclusively during additions, while others are active during subtractions. They do not care whether the calculation instruction is written down as a word or a symbol. The results have now been published in the journal Current Biology.

DID YOU KNOW?

•        Despite their name, killer whales or orcas are the largest members of the dolphin family.

•        Octopuses have three hearts, nine brains, and blue blood.

•        In certain conditions, hot water can freeze faster than cold water – a counter-intuitive phenomenon known as the Mpemba effect.

•        Rattlesnakes can fool you into thinking they are closer than they really are by suddenly increasing the frequency of their rattle from 40Hz to 100Hz.

 

 

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us