Mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, even you are a vertebrate. And now for the first time, scientists from around the world are coming together to study them on a molecular level.
"The Genome 10k Project is our first look at vertebrate animal life," said David Haussler, a biomolecular engineer at the University of California, Santa Cruz. "We're trying to get at least 10,000 species represented in our genome collection," he said.
Led by a team of biologists at UC Santa Cruz, researchers are collecting DNA and breaking it down to better understand the history of evolution from gorillas to elephants to alligators.
"We want to know what life is about. This is all about the thread of DNA that's been passed down for more than 500 million years from parent to offspring and has generated this incredible diversity of vertebrates," said Haussler.
Specimens from thousands of animals from zoos, museums, universities and the wild are being collected and sequenced. The complete genetic heritage is revealed with the letters A, C, T and G.
"Every base of DNA in your genome has a history and story to tell and it's only by computer analysis that we'll be able to tell all those hundreds of thousands and maybe millions of stories someday," he said.
"These genomes are huge. There are 3 billion bases of DNA, 3 billion A, C, T and G's in each genome and then to compare them all to each other … you want to compare the DNA of one genome to another, that's 3 billion compared to 3 billion in all possible ways ... that's already a huge computation. Now multiply that by 10,000 … and it's just an enormous problem," said Haussler.
Until recently, the technology didn't exist to do this. Now, genome sequencing is faster and more powerful, allowing researchers to reveal the genome of a species in just a few hours … giving us a glimpse into that vertebrate's life and the lives that came before.
"By comparing that genome with genomes from other species that have already been sequenced, we can learn about how the basic body plans of vertebrates evolved, and emerged and changed over time," said Beth Shapiro, an ecologist and evolutionary biologist at UC Santa Cruz.
"We learn things every time we see a new genome, we learn more about the common evolutionary past of all the different species and we really learn more about ourselves as well. So the big questions are: How does evolution really work? How is the DNA changed? What were the big innovations that created new things? How about walking on land? How about flight?," Haussler said.
Every genome sequenced as part of the 10K Project will be available to researchers across the globe to help further our knowledge of where we've been and where we are going.
"We are discovering history! It's a history that was not written down in books. But a history that was written in DNA and we can read it now for the first time," said Haussler.
Marsha Lewis is a freelance producer based in California. She has won 11 National Telly Awards and nine Regional Emmy Awards for her work in local and national syndicated news. Reprinted with permission from Inside Science, an editorially independent news product of the American Institute of Physics, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing, promoting and serving the physical sciences.