Colombia: They seek to trace the genetic atlas of life on Earth – Science – Life

In 1953, when biologist James Watson, biophysicist Francis Crick, physicist Maurice Wilkins, and chemist Rosalind Franklin discovered the double helical structure of DNA moleculea milestone that will become a critical step in the analysis Molecular genome.

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The first in a chain of events that would lead to the development of the first technologies needed to sequence DNA in the 1970s, which would be improved over the years until the Human Genome Project became a reality in the early 2000s.

It’s been just over two decades since humans have known most of that genetic recipe that makes us who we are – although there are still little gaps that can’t be recovered and will have to wait for the technology to decode them.

knowledge that, according to National Human Genome Research Institute, Who led the project, it’s like having all the manual pages needed to make the human body, although we don’t know how to read it very well, but with multiple ramifications in the field of health.

A similar feat with living things all over the planet is the ambition of scientists over the next ten years. With the participation of more than 5,000 researchers from all over the world, Earth BioGenome Project (EBP, for its English acronym) aims to sequence the genomes of nearly two million species of plants, animals and fungi that have been described on the planet.

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Led by the University of California at Davis (USA), EBP is an initiative in which, since 2018, several specific local or national science projects have been incorporated, which have been added to this global effort, such as the California Conservation Genome Project, the Darwin Tree of Life Project and the Darwin Tree of Life Project. The Vertebrate Genome and Bird Genome Project. A giant puzzle Colombia, which is considered the second most diverse country in the world, It can be a very important piece.

Only by knowing the resources we have can we create economic opportunities, using these resources sustainably

That is why, on January 17 of this year, the project began a new phase with the publication of ten articles in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), which talk about planning, progress and the steps to be taken, one of them was focused exclusively on the work being done in our country. The document was prepared by, with other scientists, Andrew Crawford, a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Andean Universityand Silvia Restrepo, Vice President for Research and Establishment of the Foundation.

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For Professor Crawford, the article was included in the publication because of the joint work that takes place between government, academia and the private sector, a fortunate collaboration that occurred thanks to the path marked by the recommendations of the Expedition of the Wise, which was submitted to Bio-economy as the path to be followed for the sustainable development of the country.

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A formula to add to Colombia’s abundant biodiversity and the possibility opened up after the signing of the 2016 peace agreement, to reach areas that were hard to reach due to armed conflict, experts published in the document in PNAS.

“Decades of armed conflict, limited infrastructure, and a lack of financial resources to match such a large concentration of planetary biodiversity have left Colombia’s ecosystems relatively inaccessible, untouched, and poorly studied.”

book of life

Just as the Human Genome Project has opened the door to research seeking to develop highly effective diagnostic tools and design new treatments for diseases, the Earth BioGenome Project also hopes to lay the foundation for the science needed to bring about genetic information-based solutions to global problems such as biodiversity loss or crop adaptation. climate change, Improving species conservation, perhaps discovering or even contemplating new medicines from natural sources Prevent future epidemics.

It’s not about asking biodiverse countries to send in their samples, it’s about thinking about how to share the benefits


But, as Harris Lewin, EBP coordinator and ecologist at the University of California, Davis, told the media, perhaps the most special thing about the project is not its size or the unimaginable benefits, but “the enthusiasm of the scientists who launched it and that they are coordinating the largest initiative in the history of biology.” “.

Lewin and Crawford met while participating in the Vertebrate Genome Project, an initiative Focuses on the genetic sequence of vertebrates only. “Harris wondered how to introduce this to the rest of biodiversity and said ‘why not think a little bit more and organize it at the level of all eukaryotes,’ which are basically all life that isn’t bacteria,” recalls the Andean University professor.

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Now, the intention with EBP is also to unite the efforts of scientists, institutions, companies and laboratories independently around the world, to set quality standards for studies, to facilitate the exchange of information, to arrive at ideal methods and technology, to manage access to resources, to transfer results to the world and to share benefits with communities You live in the places where the research is being conducted.

In addition, considering that EBP is a project in which the sequencing implementation technology is often concentrated in rich countries, which cannot begin to map the genome because of the amount of work or because The greatest biodiversity in the tropicsIn countries that do not have the economic resources to conduct studies, the project is an ethical component of knowledge transfer among all actors.

“It’s not about asking countries with biodiversity to send in their samples, but about thinking about how the benefits are shared and that every country, who has done the work of caring for nature, can make sure they get the benefits,” Crawford explains. ..

Sustainable development

Silvia Restrepo and Federica de Palma, director of science at the Earlham Institute in Norwich and the Columbia Bridge Research Network across the UK and Colombia, were members of the 2019 Wise Men’s Mission, as the international panel of experts made recommendations such as where the bioeconomy contributes no less than 10% of GDP by 2030.

To achieve this goal, the national government, headed by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, launched the National Bioeconomy Strategy in 2020. In the process, the Colombia Federation with the EBP project is expected to become a promoter of the goal proposed by the mission.

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For Restrepo, EBP in Colombia contributes a lot, because he considers that the basis of bioeconomics is knowledge of biodiversity. “Only by knowing the resources we have can we create economic opportunities, using these resources sustainably”, confirms the Andean Vice-Chancellor, who with De Palma and Crawford began tracing the collaborative network of researchers conducting genome studies in a country like them.

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There are projects going forward with some species, such as the one in GROW-Colombia, which sequences the cacao and the Andean bear (Tremarctos ornatus). In addition to Colombian research grants that contribute some findings to researchers such as those from Professor Crawford’s lab, which Focus on studies of frogs. The plan aims to continue to standardize and formalize the EBP project in the country, to face many social, environmental and economic challenges, including conflict, inequality, poverty and low agricultural productivity, the article states.

“There is a lot to be done. The next step for Colombia will be to find out who wants to participate, what priorities we have, and how to organize and fund these interests that Colombians have,” explains Professor Crawford, who gave as an example that agencies like Sciences It is expected to begin defining important research objectives for the country, such as studying a particular crop to increase its productivity or focusing on some species that are nutritionally important to a particular population, for example.

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To continue the project, scientists and technicians must collect, document, and keep samples in biobanks. Then, they extract and sequence the DNA, according to criteria established in the first three years of EBP’s preparation, to subsequently numerically categorize it into publicly accessible databases.

Until 2023, it is expected that in the first phase it will be possible to produce reference genomes for about 9,400 taxonomic families, each of which will have at least one animal, fungus or plant. This will be the starting point for an expansion of what they hope will become the atlas containing The genetic legacy of the planet’s biodiversity.

Alejandra Lopez Plazas
science writer

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