The Whole Earth Cataloguer

UC Davis professor Harris Lewin is about to launch one of the most audacious scientific ventures in human history—to map the DNA of every living thing on Earth. The 10-year, $5 billion quest could result in a tsunami of medical cures, solutions for global hunger, and the creation of a new “Silicon Valley of agricultural science and biotechnology” right here in our backyard. Oh, and it might save the planet too.

Dr. Harris Lewin in April 2018 inside UC Davis' Life Sciences Building next to a 1998 sculpture by Clarksburg artist Roger Berry depicting a strand of DNA sequenced at the university

Dr. Harris Lewin in April 2018 inside UC Davis' Life Sciences Building next to a 1998 sculpture by Clarksburg artist Roger Berry depicting a strand of DNA sequenced at the university

Portrait by Jeremy Sykes

TThe third rock from the sun acquires its unique charms from a precious and oh-so-fragile mantle of green, blue and brown matter that somewhat improbably sustains the delicate balance of life on Earth—a balance we humans suddenly find ourselves capable of upsetting, long before we’ve even fully grasped the true complexity of how it all work.

And while we are now, by most measures, destroying our world faster than we can figure out how to save it, the balance could soon shift to our favor, thanks to Dr. Harris Lewin, a scientist at UC Davis who has hatched an audacious plan to map the DNA of every known species on Earth. For us 21st-century mortals, that means exponential advances in medical science and agricultural innovation, but it also puts the information at our fingertips that might allow us to become better stewards of the environment we share with the other 1.5 million species on the planet.

Just how did a kid from New York City who failed to get into veterinary college come to lead the largest project in the history of science, not so incidentally making Davis the seat of this coming scientific revolution?

The first thing to know about Harris Lewin is that he loves dairy cows. Like, loves them.

Most crazy cow people (rarer than their cat-loving counterparts but still a thing) are content to collect Hereford-print mugs and Ferdinand bobbleheads, and to blast out Far Side cartoons via group email to long-suffering friends and relatives. Instead, Lewin sequenced his favorite animal’s genome.

“I mean, what they eat, turning this low-quality forage into protein with a microbial fermentation vat in their gut,” marvels the UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, “then putting out massive quantities of milk—I just needed to understand the biology of this animal.”

That was in 2009, only six years after a global consortium of geneticists completed the Human Genome Project, a Herculean effort to parse all 20,500 of mankind’s genes, including the handful that make you different from a monkey, a fruit fly or a yeast colony (you might be surprised to learn that you’re closely related to the latter).

Lewin soon found himself at a bit of an impasse. “I quickly came up against the limitations of there not being enough [different species’] genomes sequenced for me to understand how genome evolution works,” he says.

You see, evolutionary geneticists learn how life works by comparing one genome to another and observing the similarities and differences. Medical and agricultural geneticists do much the same to discover new medicines and therapies for diseases in humans, animals and crops. The problem? Only a tiny fraction of Earth’s species’ genomes have been completely mapped to date—a fraction of a percent in total.

“All the new advances in medicine and agriculture are based on less than one percent of everything that exists out there,” Lewin says. “Most everything that we use in medicine has some root in the natural world. Evolution over 3.5 billion years of life has done the experiment—everything we need is probably out there in some form or another.”

The solution was obvious to no one but Harris Lewin. “I began to think, ‘Well, what would it take to sequence everything?’ ”

The idea was conceived about three years ago, when he was chatting back and forth with two of his peers, W. John Kress, undersecretary of science and a botanist at the Smithsonian Institution, and Gene Robinson, director of the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Robinson took over from Lewin, who founded the institute in 2003).

Kress recalls the origin story. “Harris was here in Washington at a meeting about the genomics of vertebrates, and we started talking. [He] suddenly had this brainstorm: ‘Why don’t we do it all?’ ”

“Harris is a visionary,” says Robinson. “This project could be something that’s transformative for science and society.”

The three found common cause among endeavors they were working on in parallel. Lewin had been involved in Genome 10K, an effort to sequence vertebrates, while Robinson was part of i5K, which aimed to sequence the genomes of insects. Kress, meanwhile, had been helping build a vast collection of frozen botanical samples through the Smithsonian’s Global Genome Initiative.

“We couldn’t find anybody who’d tell us not to do it,” says Kress. “Ten years ago it would’ve been impossible, but right now it’s very possible. And in five years, it’ll be even easier—so we should just get going.” The cost of sequencing DNA has been falling steadily, and in response, many individual ventures have gotten underway with the intent to sequence certain sets of genomes—Baylor College of Medicine is sequencing arthropods, and the U.S. Department of Energy is sequencing fungi, for example—but no one else has dared to take on the entire planet’s genome.

Scientific illustrator Alex Cagan live-sketched the presentation Lewin gave on the Earth BioGenome Project at England’s Wellcome Sanger Institute in May 2017. (Illustration courtesy of Alex Cagan)

In April, the white paper on the trio’s brainchild, the Earth BioGenome Project (EBP), was published by the National Academy of Sciences, and the enormous undertaking will officially launch in November with Robinson and Kress as co-chairs and Lewin at the helm, supported by an advisory board of 20 other scientists representing the various branches of genomic science. “The vertebrate people, the insect people, the fungus people and the plant people, if they’re all working independently, without a common set of standards,” Lewin explains, “it’s the Tower of Babel.”

This past January, at the World Economic Forum’s annual summit in Davos, Switzerland—where Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave an opening address in front of corporate leaders, Nobel laureates and heads of state like Angela Merkel, Justin Trudeau, Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump—Lewin announced EBP’s first official partnership, with the Forum’s Earth Bank of Codes, which will create technology and standards to ensure that there is open access to all of the DNA data to be gathered.

Still, the idea of sequencing the genomes of millions of organisms, some with habitats so remote that only one or two human observers may ever have recorded their existence, is a daunting proposition. The EBP has a lot in common with its predecessor, the Human Genome Project, which seemed nigh on impossible at the time of its launch in 1990. It took scientists 13 years, but they finally succeeded in reverse engineering a blueprint for the human animal, a feat that has led to a flurry of medical innovations like immunotherapy for various cancers, new vaccines, the detection of pollutants in food sources, and even the DNA technology that allowed the FBI to finally track down and capture the alleged Golden State Killer in April. How hard could it be to do the same for the rest of Earth?

* * * * *

One afternoon in April, just hours after he handed in his final edits on the team’s inaugural white paper, Lewin, 61, looks out the fifth floor window of a room at UC Davis’ shiny new interdisciplinary Genome Center. He is an interdisciplinarian himself, sitting on the faculty for the university’s College of Biological Sciences and School of Veterinary Medicine. He’s a member of the National Academy of Sciences and was presented with the Wolf Prize—considered by many as the “Pre-Nobel” award—in agriculture in 2011 by then-Israeli President Shimon Peres (other Wolf Prize honorees have included Stephen Hawking in physics, Frank Gehry in architecture and Paul McCartney in music; Gene Robinson won it in agriculture earlier this year).

What sets Lewin apart as an academician is that he’s never shut himself in an ivory tower. He has the chops to do the science—the detailed, close-up, exhaustive work great discoveries are made of—but he’s also got an eye for the big picture, along with a flair for fundraising and administration, having hung up the lab coat and put on a tie to serve as UC Davis’ vice chancellor of research from 2011 to 2016, a period of spectacular growth. Add to that a bit of a Midas touch (his work has led directly to millions of dollars in agricultural profits), and you have an improbably rare combination of skills.

On this sunny spring day, he’s wearing an outdoorsy navy sweater and carrying a backpack, looking more like an REI member than a cowpoke as he sketches the broad strokes of what is now a $4.7 billion project with a 10-year time horizon.

Half of all species will be extinct by the end of the century if we don’t do something about climate change,” Lewin says. “That’s one of the primary drivers of the project. Having the DNA sequences for every species, that’s your book of life. So focusing on rare and endangered species in the first phase of the project is very important to us.”

That’s the budget for the entire project, but the startup costs for the first three years come in at a mere $600 million, much of which has already been raised from public and private sources in the form of funding for existing endeavors that will be enfolded under the EBP umbrella, like the i5K and G10K projects. “The Googles of the world, the Microsofts, they’re all interested in this,” Lewin says. “I’m talking to them as well as the biotech industry—the companies that make the sequencers, the reagents and all different aspects of what it would take to execute this project. A combination of industry and governments will pay for the sequencing.”

“Just for some perspective, a single B2 bomber costs [around] $2.5 billion,” he adds. “So this is less than the cost of two B2 bombers, and would create a whole new infrastructure, the basis for an entire new world economy—a bioeconomy. This has the seeds of an entirely new industrial revolution, based on the blueprints of life. Think of what the Human Genome Project has given us.”

The mapping of the Earth’s genome, however, is perhaps more crucial to our future. For instance, one leukemia drug, cytarabine, was developed in part based on a compound found in a reef sponge, but that’s with only a tiny fraction of the genomic information currently catalogued. On an even bigger scale, the undiscovered biological information hiding inside all living things may impact our very survival on the planet. The brutal truth is that at the species level, humankind can survive whether we ever cure cancer or not. What we can’t survive is the decimation of our natural habitat, any more than other species can. And the clock is ticking.The HGP has already stimulated about $1 trillion in economic activity and what one 2011 report pinned at 3.8 million “job years” of employment around the world, as medical science makes huge strides in genetically driven treatments for diseases like cancer and multiple sclerosis. Meanwhile, popular imagination has been seized by $99 genetic profiling available from companies like 23andMe and AncestryDNA, and a new cadre of genetic “experts” now offer advice on which supplements to take based on your personal genome.

“Half of all species will be extinct by the end of the century if we don’t do something about climate change,” Lewin says quietly and emphatically. “That’s one of the primary drivers of the project. Having the DNA sequences for every species, that’s your book of life. So focusing on rare and endangered species in the first phase of the project is very important to us.”

Take note that he calls it a book of life, not a book of the dead.

“If the species disappear and you have the sequence, that’s really important,” Lewin says. “Thinking about future technologies, if you don’t have the data, you have no way of preserving those organisms in a form that can be reconstituted sometime in the future.”

Jurassic Park got it wrong, you see: what coming generations of geneticists will need to revive an extinct species from its DNA won’t be a blood specimen from a mosquito preserved in amber, but a mere data set. In this case, not computer science’s binary string of ones and zeroes, but the genetic code’s twined double strands of G, T, A and C proteins.

Sound like sci-fi? Genome sequencing is already saving endangered species. Lewin’s colleague of 30 years, Oliver Ryder, who is the genetics director at the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research, is essentially using genomic data to pull animals back from the brink of extinction.

Lewin receives the Wolf Prize in agriculture from Israeli President Shimon Peres in 2011 in Jerusalem. (Photo courtesy of Harris Lewin)

“Oliver has been involved in the conservation and reintroduction of a number of wild endangered species,” Lewin says. “The California condor is one of them. That was a species that was extinct in the wild in California.” Attempts to introduce breeding pairs of condors kept failing. “When a population gets very small, the inbreeding coefficient goes up,” Lewin adds. In the 1980s, the condor population was down to a mere 22 birds, all in captivity.

Ryder’s team sequenced the condor’s genome and identified a genetic disease that was killing the young birds. “They were able to then control the breeding pairs and those individuals that were carrying the recessive lethal allele,” Lewin says. Today, nearly 300 California condors fly free in the U.S. and Mexico, with many more thriving in research institutions.

Ryder sees the EBP as an essential undertaking. “In my view, genome sequencing is akin to the discovery of the microscope in biology or the discovery of the telescope in astronomy,” he says, taking a phone call while he sits on a park bench at the San Diego Zoo. “It’s a marvelous time of discovery, and if we try to look at it how history will, we’re at the very beginning.”

“Harris is the right guy at the right time to do this,” Ryder adds. “He’s a very good organizer and critical thinker, and he’s undaunted by looking at something in broad perspective.”

Ryder’s attention is now fixed on the even more dire case of the northern white rhino. “One of the last three died in Kenya a few weeks ago,” Lewin says. Today the DNA samples from northern white rhinos in San Diego’s Frozen Zoo, where genetic materials from over 1,000 animals are preserved, are what keep alive any hope of resurrecting the species that is now without a breeding pair (the two left alive are both females). DNA sequencing could allow us to create new rhinos using related species to gestate them.

“Human interventions like these will be ever more crucial as climate change accelerates,” Lewin explains. “The reason most scientists think we’re in the middle of a sixth mass extinction event is because the species cannot adapt fast enough to the changes in their environment. When change occurred at a natural pace, evolution could keep up, but now species won’t have time to adapt through natural selection alone. It will be up to us to make smart decisions on which genes to encourage.”

Advances in genomics allowed scientists to rescue the California condor from extinction, rebuilding the wild population from 22 birds to almost 300 through targeted breeding.

Since we’ve forever altered the natural landscape, the reasoning goes, we should offer species a leg up in adapting—and with genomics we can. “The idea is to find the genetic variation that’s out there and try to incorporate that into the existing populations, to get ahead of the curve,” Lewin says. “That’s being done with corals by scientists here at UC Davis.” By identifying corals that are genetically predisposed to tolerating higher temperatures, encouraging them to multiply and relocating them to areas where native coral populations are dying, scientists hope to restore these crucial oceanic habitats for biodiversity.

The goal of this kind of intervention isn’t to preserve tourists’ snorkeling vacations on the Great Barrier Reef for another decade or two. “You have two huge sources of biodiversity on the planet,” Lewin says. “One is the tropical rain forest and the other is the coral reef, and so if the coral reefs disappear, not only is it going to cause mass extinction, it’s going to cause a huge economic issue, especially in Southeast Asia and other places that are totally dependent on that ecosystem for their economic livelihood.”

* * * * *

Talk to enough of his colleagues, and Lewin comes off as something of a super scientist. CBS could spin off a new show called CSI: Forensic Genetics based on his high-stakes sleuthing exploits in the realm of genomics. 

In 2011, the USDA approached Lewin with an urgent question: Why were an unusually high number of dairy cows miscarrying? As many as half a million, to the tune of $420 million in losses to the dairy industry. Lewin’s team leapt into action, and within 24 hours had traced the issue to a single gene mutation from a Holstein bull by the name of Chief, born in 1962. Chief’s daughters were such prodigious milk producers that he was bred thousands of times, such that by the time the issue was called out, fully 14 percent of all Holstein dairy cows were Chief’s direct descendants. It’s estimated that Chief’s favorable genetics produced tens of billions of dollars of value through increased milk production. But as it turned out, a couple of generations down the road, the super bull’s several million offspring began to spontaneously abort their young.

“It’s that problem with inbreeding,” Lewin says. “It’s too good to be true. Chief carried a recessive lethal [mutation], and once his genes got disseminated widely enough, all of a sudden you’d have cousins or distant cousins breeding [together], and it started to show up. The USDA picked up something in the fertility records of his offspring, and they called me because we had sequenced the cattle genome, and they said, ‘Can you find us the gene?’ And within 24 hours we had found the needle in the haystack.”

Armed with this knowledge, dairy farmers have been able to avoid the mutation through selective breeding, and Lewin’s feat of scientific derring-do was written up in Newsweek and The Atlantic. “Genetics has transformed breeding in the dairy industry,” The Atlantic declared, implying that it could well do the same for just about every other branch of agriculture. 

“This could be the future home of the Earth BioGenome Project,” says Lewin. It’s the size of a school classroom—it hardly looks like the Launchpad for a global movement. But neither did the garage where Hewlett and Packard launched the computer revolution. “We could be the Silicon Valley of agricultural science and biotechnology.”

Around the same time, Lewin and colleagues in France used RNA sequencing to figure out why cloned embryos usually failed to implant—and in the process determined definitively that human cloning should not be on the menu.

In the end, Lewin notes, he was able to fulfill his boyhood dream of becoming an archaeologist. “I sort of came full circle back to archaeology, with the reconstruction of genomes,” he says. Just last year, Lewin was able to reconstruct the genome of Earth’s first placental mammal, a modest-looking shrew—a small rodent who would have been nosing around the planet with his pointy snout some 100-plus million years ago. But that was easy compared to what he’s proposing to do at UC Davis’ Genome Center, where a room of servers hosts a large computing unit, of which Lewin is the greatest user by a wide margin. “We need to be able to sequence a couple of genomes a week,” he shouts over the roar of the servers, breezing through the room. Once the EBP is underway, the need for processing power will far exceed the capacity of any single institution, all the more reason for a worldwide effort.

Rounding a corner, Lewin peers through a window in a door. “All those autoclaves are coming out. This could be the future home of the Earth BioGenome Project.” It’s a laboratory about the size of a high school classroom—it hardly looks like the launchpad for a global movement. But neither did the garage in Palo Alto where Hewlett and Packard launched the computer revolution.

“We have a long way to go,” Lewin says, “but we could be the Silicon Valley of agricultural science and biotechnology.”

* * * * *

You would think a man who made a career of a passion for all things bovine would have grown up on a farm somewhere in the central plains of the flyover states, but Harris Lewin grew up in New York City. “We lived in the south shore of Brooklyn, which was right on Jamaica Bay,” he says. “That’s a wildlife sanctuary where there are millions of migrating birds.”

Lewin’s father, who worked for a textile company, was an amateur naturalist, so family weekends were spent visiting the Bronx Zoo and the American Museum of Natural History.

“My whole interest in the natural world was formed around dioramas and fossil exhibits,” he says. At the age of 5 or 6, Lewin would find animal bones while playing outside, and once reconstructed a rabbit skeleton.

In the ’70s, a teenaged Harris got his first taste of pastoral life when visiting his older sister on a kibbutz in Israel, where she had emigrated after marrying an Israeli. His primary chore was to tend the chicken coop. “The agricultural environment really resonated with me,” he says. He returned the next summer and worked with dairy cows, and that cemented his desire to become a veterinarian.

Upon graduating from high school he enrolled in the animal science program at Cornell, where he stuck out as a city mouse among all the farm kids from upstate, and although he did well, Lewin was heading for heartbreak: He didn’t get into vet school.

“Things happen for a reason,” he says now. Instead of becoming a veterinarian, Lewin remained at Cornell to earn a master’s degree in animal breeding and genetics, working with chickens. But then he decided it was time to pursue his passion—dairy cows.

“I didn’t want to work on humans, and I didn’t want to work on mice,” he says. “I wanted to work on a species that had agricultural importance. So I looked around to find the best laboratory in the world in the field called immunogenetics.”

That turned out to be UC Davis, where he found a mentor in Clyde Stormont, an early pioneer in bovine genetics. Stormont left Davis to found Stormont Labs in Woodland the same year Lewin arrived, but in doing so provided an entirely different kind of inspiration. “Wow, here was a professor who came up with this fantastic technology—and he started a company,” Lewin says. “This was in 1981, before professors were doing these things.”

That entrepreneurial spirit stuck with Lewin. When he graduated from Davis with a PhD in immunology, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign hired him as an assistant professor of immunogenetics, and he distinguished himself over the next 27 years by creating diagnostic tools for a disease caused by a bovine leukemia virus and as a key figure in the multi-institution effort to sequence the cattle genome, a project that was based on a framework he created.

The Circle of Life Forms: All living things on Earth descended from a single organism called LUCA (last universal common ancestor) and inherited LUCA’s genetic code for basic biological functions, such as translating DNA and creating proteins. Constant genetic mutations shuffled and altered this inheritance and added new genetic material—a process that created the diversity of life we see today. The “tree of life” organizes all organisms based on the extent of shuffling and alteration between them. The simplified version shown here—newly created by Martin Krzywinski, a scientist at Canada’s Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre who specializes In bioformatics—depicts all three domains of life: bacteria, archaebacteria and eukaryote. For some organisms a gray bar shows when they first appeared in the tree in millions of years (Ma). The double helix winding around the tree encodes highly conserved ribosomal RNA genes from various organisms. (Illustration by Martin Krzywinski)

Lewin’s own genetic code seems to have been optimized for multitasking, as he also managed to found the Institute for Genomic Biology on campus in 2003, with $75 million in initial funding. It was this last accomplishment that prompted then-UCD chancellor Linda Katehi to coax him to return in 2011, not just with a plum professorship but also the position of vice chancellor of research. Word had gotten out that this was a scientist who was equally talented as an administrator.

Lewin was ready to come back, with most of his family in tow. His father, 92, has moved across the country to live in Davis, as has his son Adam, 31, who founded and owns a semiprofessional soccer team, FC Davis. (His daughter Sara, 33, lives in New York.) His wife, Rosane Oliveira, a Brazilian geneticist he worked with at the University of Illinois, is director of UC Davis’ Integrative Medicine program and a leading authority on plant-based diets. “She is the most remarkable person I’ve ever met,” Lewin says. “I’m just a scientist, but she’s a superstar who is changing people’s lives daily.”

In his new role as an administrator, Lewin quickly came to the attention of local developer Mark Friedman, another big thinker who had done some of the first loft conversions in Sacramento’s urban core and led the development of the Golden 1 Center and West Sacramento’s Bridge District.

“If you look around the country and figure out how cities’ economic growth goes from a [flat] trajectory to a steeper one, it’s almost always due to the transformation of research that originated on a campus into new businesses that create jobs,” Friedman says. “Look at Silicon Valley and the role that Stanford played. Look at the University of Washington and the role it played in the development of Microsoft and Amazon. Then look at Davis, an incredible biology powerhouse. Biology is extraordinarily important to solving many of the most critical issues that are facing us right now.”

Friedman spent a lot of time at Davis, hoping to build a business incubator or find avenues for public-private partnerships that would bring together entrepreneurs and academics. “And who was always there, trying to push the same rock up the same hill?” Friedman says. “Harris.”

UC Davis had come a long way since Stormont left to start his private lab in 1981, but needed to revamp its bureaucracy to compete for research dollars with private universities and other schools in the UC system. To accomplish that, Lewin created an office of technology management and corporate relations in 2012, and hired a serial entrepreneur, Dushyant Pathak, to serve as associate vice chancellor.

In 2015, under Lewin’s guidance, Davis set a new record for attracting outside funding for research, besting its previous number by $100 million. Lewin also focused on streamlining the process for public-private collaborations, making it easier—and faster—for the school to innovate and help build new businesses.

“When Harris hired me, we were averaging about four startups a year,” Pathak says. “Over the last five years, we’ve been averaging 13 startups a year based on university research—more than one a month. I really give Harris a lot of credit for the leadership and vision. We transformed UC Davis.”

With this new entrepreneurial template in place, the university is poised to become a hub around which a local agricultural innovation economy should blossom and flourish. It’s one of the reasons Lewin hopes to locate the EBP’s headquarters here. By attracting top talent in the biological sciences, and providing avenues for these great minds to spin off new enterprises, the stage is set for an economic renaissance that is uniquely suited to the region.

* * * * *

Lewin leads the way through a series of white-walled laboratory spaces on the ground floor of the genomics building that look like they were designed to test a rat’s ability to solve a maze. He can’t find the door to his own laboratory, that’s how arcane—and vast—the facilities are. Eventually he finds it, then ropes in a colleague to lead him to the building’s server room. “The Genome Center has the biggest computing cluster on the campus,” he says.

The server room is chilly, windowless and humming, phalanxes of black towers crunching numbers—a single human genome contains six billion data points. But if the EBP achieves its goal, it will ultimately create the most extensive data set the world has ever seen. Forget your garden-variety terabytes. Think in exabytes—one exabyte being a million terabytes. To date the largest scientific data set in existence belongs to astronomy—this will dwarf that.

“Rather than ‘astronomical’ amounts of data,” Lewin quips, “it’ll be genomic amounts of data.”

He wants to find the lab equipment that does the actual sequencing, and eventually, passing through one of the building’s warrens of cubicles, he finds an assistant taking data off a device called a MinION, an early model of a pocket-sized sequencer. It’s not entirely ready for prime time, the genomicist explains, but the device, which looks a little like a miniature tape recorder, will eventually be something scientists and fieldwork volunteers can use to quickly identify biological samples in the wild, anywhere in the world, from a high plain in the Sierras to an Amazonian jungle, from a sample as small as a nanoparticle.

Down the hall and around the corner, a big black-and-white box about the size of a refrigerator does the real work—the state-of-the-art machine identifies T, G, A and C proteins through an optical imaging process by dying them different colors. At $350,000 a unit, these machines are relatively cheap—well within the budget of just about any university or hospital. The cost of the technology has been falling precipitously year over year, and is the reason it now costs a mere $1,000 to fully sequence a human genome, instead of the $3 billion it took for the Human Genome Project.

History in the making: Lewin (far left) at the National Academy of Sciences in 2016 with (left to right) Huanming Yang, chairman of the Beijing Genomics Institute, and Earth BioGenome Project co-chairs Gene Robinson and John Kress (Photo courtesy of Harris Lewin)

As daunting as the technological feat of sequencing the Earth’s genome sounds, the real challenge isn’t the science or the technology, but organizing boots on the ground. Who is going to collect the samples for all those millions of organisms?

John Kress knows as much about sample collecting as anybody on the planet. Greeting a visitor at the Smithsonian’s natural history museum in D.C., he leads the way back into the building’s maze of archives. “The thing about the museum is we have around 140 million objects and specimens,” he says. “And PhD scientists like myself scurrying around.”

The botany repository houses hundreds of storage lockers full of paper folders that contain pressed plants. The rows of lockers are so long they seem to have a vanishing point. Kress pulls open a metal door, disgorging a pleasantly musty smell reminiscent of a forest floor, or pungent tea leaves. “These are the plants that I work on, they’re called heliconias—gingers, birds-of-paradise, bananas, they’re all related,” he says. The dried samples represent hundreds of years’ worth of collecting—the oldest specimen dates back to 1594—but the method of dehydration doesn’t preserve the DNA well enough to sequence it, so this work will all need to be repeated over the next 10 years for the project to be completed. Kress also contributes to another archive of tissues held in vats of liquid nitrogen in a storage facility in Maryland—that’s the kind of sampling that will need to be done to preserve DNA.

The botanist knows what’s involved, as he spends a lot of his time doing fieldwork—he’s leaving in a couple of weeks for Costa Rica to study the way hummingbirds and flowers interact. His staff page on the Smithsonian’s website features a picture of him in the Amazon jungle in the 1980s, wearing a sweat-stained button-down and an Indiana Jones fedora, although, as he wryly points out, he was rocking the look long before Harrison Ford.

“I spent the first 30 years of my career in the field collecting plants. The first 10 are easy,” he jokes. “But getting the next 1.4 million is going to be really hard.”

Think tens of thousands of wannabe Indys: scientists, naturalists, volunteers, schoolchildren. That aspect of the project may just turn out to be the biggest resource drain and logistical stumbling block.

“We have to be able to find all these things in their native habitats if we’re going to actually generate their genomes,” he says. “So there is still a lot of fieldwork involved.”

Not all of the benefits promised by the EBP belong to the physical world. Gene Robinson’s own research has centered on the genetic underpinnings of society itself. “I use the genomics of the honeybee to study the mechanisms and evolution of social behavior,” he says. “With a brain the size of a grass seed, there are some very interesting parallels and some interesting differences.” Honeybees, for instance, have no leader—contrary to popular belief, the queen bee isn’t the boss, but merely a prolific breeder—and yet their self-organized society functions smoothly. Kind of like the self-organizing community of scientists the EBP proposes.

“For this project to be possible, it’s going to require intense international cooperation,” Robinson says. “So we’re going to need to build better bridges across nations, and I think it could actually be a very inspiring project at a time when nationalist fever is gripping so many countries—to be able to say, ‘Hey, look what we can get done if we work together.’ ”

* * * * *

During the 20th century, our scientific heroes were all physicists, names like Einstein, Bohr, Feynman, Heisenberg, Hawking. And in the middle of that century, a lot of these heroes of science literally scared themselves and the rest of us nearly to death by inventing the atomic bomb.

One of these physicists, Francis Crick, left physics for biology at that time, and went on to co-discover the double helix—DNA—as possessing the code to all of life. Today there is widespread agreement that the 21st century belongs to biology. So it’s up to people like Harris Lewin to capture the public imagination, with a message for this era that is no less dramatic and exciting for being about stewardship, healing and hope. He’s aware of the awesome responsibility.

“The genome sequence gives you entrée into an entirely new world of nature’s designs and what’s possible,” says Lewin.

He sees the future in the faces of the students sitting in his classroom. “I taught a course on biodiversity to undergraduates last quarter,” he says. “First time I taught in 20 years, because I’ve been doing administration and research. The students here in California are smarter, they are far more diverse, and because it was a general education class, you had 20 majors among 25 students—and most of them were there because they wanted to learn something about how climate change is effecting biodiversity.”

One of Lewin’s fellow researchers at UCLA, Rachel Meyer, is working on a program to enlist college and even high school students in data collection. Unlike the Human Genome Project, which only involved the scientific community, the Earth BioGenome Project will be a truly collective effort that will require widespread cooperation, and hopefully inspire a sense of wonder and pride among the next generation of scientists. “It really is an open-source project,” Lewin says. “You can find things that are within your skill-set level and do them.”

It all comes down to one thing, according to Lewin, a simple fact that also contains a kernel of hope for those of us who feel buffeted by news cycles that seem to consist of nothing but grim warnings and reproaches over our foolish squandering of the planet’s resources: Only intelligence will save us. But, as he warns, human intelligence alone won’t get us there—we’ll need to tap into what Lewin calls “biological intelligence.”

“There are lessons to be learned that we haven’t even begun to think about which will provide solutions in ways that were impossible to anticipate,” he says. “The way our project is framed, it’s a discovery. In biology, it’s the equivalent of the moon shot.”S