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International cross-pollination in genome sequencing work

Genome assemblies provide scientists with the genetic map of a plant, animal, or human. The year 2000 was an exciting landmark for science when the first plant genome assembly was published, providing the entire DNA sequence of a small flowering weed known as the thale cress. Genome sequencing has grown at high speeds in 20 years, yet there is still more to be done.

BYU Plant and Wildlife Sciences professor Paul Frandsen collaborated with researchers across the country to assess the last two decades of genome sequencing. His work resulted in two publications: a plant genome sequencing study published in the journal Nature Plants, and a study on animal genome sequencing published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), which examines the progress of animal genome sequencing. It includes data generated from the Earth BioGenome Project.

Plants growing in potted soil in a lab

“What’s most exciting is that the quality of genome sequencing is improving rapidly,” Frandsen says. “Genome sequences are more complete and of higher quality than they’ve ever been." A full genome assembly gives scientists the DNA map of an organism, which offers priceless information on genome evolution and possibilities for gene-editing.

Improved technology has also enabled genome sequencing work to take off. Genome sequencing used to be very expensive, but new technology has made the process more cost and time-efficient, enabling scientists worldwide to join in the effort.

According to Frandsen, four genome assemblies are deposited every day to the largest genome database, GenBank. “If we continue at that rate, all described animals wouldn’t be sequenced until [the year] 3136,” Frandsen says.

Some scientific projects have proposed sequencing all of natural life within the next ten years, which would require over 450 genome assemblies to be uploaded every day. This means that scientists would have to work 112 times faster than their current rate. Frandsen says genome sequencing projects would need more funding, more training, and more international involvement to accomplish this lofty goal.

Both studies found some disparity between nations that are home to plant and animal species and the nations that are sequencing them. According to Frandsen’s plant genome study, “Fifty-six percent of all domesticated crops have had their genome sequenced outside of their continent of origin, and only 13 percent of these included in-continent collaborators.” Frandsen and his collaborators hope to bring awareness to this cultural disparity and encourage the scientific community to involve native people in genome sequencing efforts.

“There are a lot of people with local knowledge who could make a big contribution to these efforts,” Frandsen explains.

One solution would be to cross-pollinate scientists from different cultures when working on projects in foreign countries. “We are sequencing more genomes than ever, they’re cheaper than they’ve ever been, and the tools that we’re using to analyze them are more mature than they’ve ever been,” Frandsen says. “Those three things together mean that we have this great opportunity to involve more people in the global sequencing analysis effort.”

Genome sequencing improves when people across multiple fields get involved. Frandsen emphasizes that genome sequencing is not simply an ivory-tower enterprise. Involving field technicians, museum workers, IT experts, and others from diverse cultures could be the next step to expand scientific knowledge in this rapidly growing field.