Worm to elephant: New genome targets

The National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) has released a list of 18 wildly different creatures as targets for genome sequencing.

BIG JOB. The African savannah elephant provides a target for genome sequencing. J. Cohen/National Zoo

The scientists making the selection clambered all over the tree of life, looking for lineages near dramatic branching points, according to Adam Felsenfeld, a biologist at NHGRI in Bethesda, Md. For example, the sea lamprey was included because its ancestors were probably among the first vertebrates.

Nine mammals made the list: African savannah elephant, orangutan, nine-banded armadillo, domestic cat, European hedgehog, rabbit, guinea pig, lesser hedgehog tenrec, and European common shrew.

Two organisms chosen for sequencing are threats to human health: a Trichinella roundworm that spreads to people from undercooked pork and the Biomphalaria freshwater snail, which hosts a parasitic fluke that causes schistosomiasis.

The institute also selected three microbes, including a placozoan that some taxonomists consider so odd that they give it a phylum of its own. The three remaining targets are another roundworm, a hydra from the group of harpoon flingers that includes corals, and a slime mold.

The 18 new picks join the kangaroo, cow, red flour beetle, and several fruit flies, previously selected for studies funded by NHGRI. Scientists have already begun working to sequence these organisms and several others.

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.