Although the value of honey bees, chickens, and sea urchins to biomedicine may not be obvious, their genomes have risen to the top of the list of species to be sequenced by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). On 22 May, NIH announced that these three organisms, along with the chimp, a protozoan called Tetrahymena thermophile and several fungi, will be next in line at the high-throughput sequencing centers that are now scrambling to decipher the genetic code of humans, mice, and rats.
The exponential increase in the rates of sequencing production have freed up machines and created a keen competition among researchers to have their favorite organism sequenced. To create order from this chaos, the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) last summer invited researchers to submit "white papers" on behalf of a particular organism. Each proposal was peer-reviewed and rated according to the organism’s importance to medical research as well as to basic biological and evolutionary studies.
To build the case for the sea urchin, 75 sea urchin scientists wrote letters about the species' value to developmental biology, cell biology, biochemistry, and studies of gene regulation. "It would be a tragedy if this [potential] was lost," says James Coffman, a developmental biologist at the Stowers Institution for Medical Research in Kansas City, Missouri. The argument proved convincing.
The fungal research community pointed out practical benefits--small genome size, big impact on crops and health--as well as the potential contribution to evolutionary biology. "With them, we can learn about a whole kingdom in one fell swoop," says Ralph Dean, a fungal expert at North Carolina State University in Raleigh (Science, 22 June 2001, p. 2273). He and his colleagues also teamed up with a sequencing center--the Whitehead Institute--in a strategy that proved successful for several groups.
Only six of the 13 proposals moved to the top of the list, leaving behind such popular species as the rhesus macaque and the cow. However, the process of setting priorities for the organisms to be sequenced has just begun, says NHGRI director Francis Collins. He expects that more organisms will be added as the centers free up more sequencers--assuming the centers’ money doesn’t run out. It is unclear when the next go-around will be, but for now, says Coffman, the animals that have moved to the top of the list "are all great choices."
List of organisms given moderate or high priority by NIH
Science article on the case for the chimp genome
Science article on the case for insect genomes