Neil Davies, Gustav Paulay, and their colleagues want it all. Equipped with $5.2 million in funding over three years, off-site high-throughput sequencing technologies, an elite team of taxonomists and molecular biologists, and 51 square miles of a French Polynesian island to explore, they aim to systematically collect specimens — and sequence the genomes — of every non-microbial living species on Moorea. They are just starting to see some data.
The Moorea Biocode Project, named for the host island which lies 11 miles off the coast of Tahiti, is well into its third year of operations. The hope is that the island will serve as a model ecosystem and the results of the team's comprehensive DNA barcoding survey will promote further research on the effects of climate change and shifts in biodiversity.
"There are all sorts of benefits of [DNA] barcoding — having genetic identifiers for individual species," Davies says. "This project is specifically trying to provide that kind of tool for an entire system so we can start to look at [these systems] as an integrated whole, rather than different subcomponents."
Davies, executive director of the University of California, San Diego's Gump Station on Moorea, is the principal investigator of this project, funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. Paulay, the curator of marine malacology at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, serves as the initiative's marine invertebrates team leader.
"The biggest challenge is finding 'every' species," Paulay says, acknowledging that actually accounting for all species on the island would be nearly impossible. They've resorted to examining the gut contents of macrofauna to collect samples of clandestine species as small as 1 to 10 millimeters.
Once the specimens have been acquired in a divide-and-conquer fashion — an orchestrated effort among seven specialized taxonomy teams — genomic DNA is collected and sent to the Smithsonian's lab for PCR and Sanger sequencing. Tissue samples and photos from each catalogued species are then sent to museums for archival storage.
"In comparison, the molecular work is relatively straightforward," Paulay says. "The greatest challenge there [has been] coming up with primers that work for the vast range of organisms encountered."
Davies says that the project has contributed several barcode loci for the phyla they've discovered so far, which they plan to deposit in a publicly accessible database. The next step, and perhaps that which will provide the greatest challenge yet, he says, is to utilize their curated Biocode library in extensive meta-genomic analyses.
It's an undertaking that Davies describes as akin to the Human Genome Project. "One of the exciting things here is bringing together a large number of people with a common objective; a single ambition that's nonetheless tractable. A lot of things have to come together and we have to push some technologies in new directions," he says. "We're forced to work across the whole spectrum … advancing a set of tools that can be applied elsewhere with benefits beyond the one system we're looking at."