We Are Sequencing the Genomes of the World, and It’s Giving Us a New Vision of Life


In one fell swoop, the world of genomics got a massive present: 45 new, fully sequenced bird genomes. This bonanza came in 2014 out of a four-year mega-sequencing project involving hundreds of researchers from more than 80 institutions across 20 countries. It represents just one tip of the huge tree of life.

The project was led by China’s BGI, the world’s largest genomics center. BGI has also led the sequencing of panda, rice and 38 different types of pigeon, which Darwin used as prime evidence for evolution in his 1859 masterpiece, “On the Origin of Species.”

One of BGI’s biggest findings was support for the “big bang” concept of bird evolution. The family tree built from these genomes shows that most bird lineages burst forth in a relatively short period of time (10-15 million years) after dinosaurs vanished from the Earth. Birds are “dinosaurs with wings,” after all — just look at a scaly foot of a chicken.

BGI’s Avian Phylogenomics Project was huge: analysis of the data took more than 300 years of CPU (central processing units) time on several supercomputers. Yet it was just one small slice of global efforts to decode the DNA of life on Earth. Birds, some of our favorite vertebrate species — there are more than 40 million birdwatchers in the U.S. alone — are just a tiny twig of the four-billion-year-old tree of life.

Graphic shows higher-order animals that have had or in the process of having, their genomes sequenced.

Genomes 10K, for example, aims to sequence a representative genome from every animal type with a spine. It will take 10,000 genomes just to sample each highly related grouping of species, or “genus.” —> Read More