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If you count up all the different kinds of birds, mammals, fish, amphibians and reptiles, you get about 70,000 species. And an ambitious group of scientists wants to understand the full genetic makeup of every single one of them. Today, they unveiled the complete DNA sequences of 25 species, including the platypus and the zig-zag eel. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports they found some surprises.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: The Vertebrate Genomes Project wants to get the genetic code of every known species with a backbone that's alive today; 71,657 named species. Erich Jarvis is a scientist at The Rockefeller University, who heads this effort. He says it should take about a decade and will ultimately cost something like $100 million.
ERICH JARVIS: One hundred million dollars is a lot of money. But if you can capture all endangered species, you know, capture all vertebrates on the planet and be, you know, a new model for how to do genomes, I think it's worth it.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Over the last few years, the group has been refining their strategies and processes for taking a sample from an animal and figuring out its DNA code. Jarvis says they're now able to sequence six species a week and can get high-quality, complete results.
JARVIS: I think it's unconscionable to generate the lower draft quality genome sequences. It's a waste of money. It's a waste of time. You get decent science. You can, but you get lots of errors. You're missing lots of things.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Take the zebra finch, for example; a songbird studied to help understand vocal learning in birds and people. It turns out these finches have seven more chromosomes than previously thought. Platypuses have eight more chromosomes. Each chromosome carries a ton of different genes.
JARVIS: People thought these genes were missing in birds and platypus, right? But they weren't missing. They just weren't sequenced with the older technologies.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Their new technologies also avoid the opposite error - seeing extra genes that aren't actually there. Jarvis says it turns out this was a problem for tracing the evolution of the so-called love hormone oxytocin.
JARVIS: People in the past had incorrectly named additional genes of the oxytocin receptor in different fish and vertebrate lineages.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The new reports in Nature and other scientific journals include the genetic code of wild species that are currently at risk, such as the kakapo, a critically endangered parrot in New Zealand.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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