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

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