The Darwin Tree of Life Project

At the start of the millennium, while the first seedlings were being planted at Carrifran Wildwood, another dream was reaching its fulfilment. After years of ground-breaking research, the Human Genome Project provided us with the Homo sapiens genome, the complete DNA code for the human species. Two decades on and these seemingly disparate threads are entwining. The Borders Forest Trust is collaborating on The Darwin Tree of Life, a biodiversity project led by the The Wellcome Sanger Institute, who played a key role in the Human Genome Project.

The huge scientific advances engendered by the Human Genome Project naturally gave wing to an aspiration to decode the genomes of all living organisms. Pushing this ambition forward, the Darwin Tree of Life is a major collaborative initiative, involving the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, the University of Edinburgh, NatureScot, and many other partners. The project aims to produce publicly available reference genomes for the approximately 70,000 species of animal, plant, fungi, and protozoa living in and around Britain and Ireland. A great library of life that will transform the way we do biology, aid biodiversity conservation, and serve as a truly open global resource.

The biodiversity of Scotland is a key priority for the Darwin Tree of Life project. Over the next few years researchers and taxonomic experts may be seen out sampling across BFT sites and they will be more than happy to enter into conversation about this work. Before you get concerned that they will be stripping the woodland bare, field sampling is light touch and a single individual can usually provide enough material for genome sequencing. Ultimately, individual organisms collected in the Wild Heart of Southern Scotland will become the genetic representative for entire species. 

As recounted in ‘A Journey in Landscape Restoration: Carrifran Wildwood and Beyond’, a number of butterflies such as the Ringlet (Aphantopus hyperantus), Large Skipper (Ochlodes sylvanus) and Scotch Argus (Erebia aethiops), were collected at Carrifran during the earliest phases of the Darwin Tree of Life project. Indeed, the Ringlet and Large Skipper genomes have already been released publicly (see //portal.darwintreeoflife.org/). Further work coordinated by the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh has focused on the collection of bryophytes (mosses, liverworts, and hornworts), with over 80 species collected at Carrifran and Gameshope to date. These include the Lapland Yokemoss (Amphidium lapponicum), Orkney Notchwort (Anastrepta orcadensis), and River Thyme-moss (Pseudobryum cinclidioides). Collections on BFT sites over the next couple of years will extend further, with a particular focus on invertebrates.

The Borders Forest Trust landscape scale restoration work and the Darwin Tree of Life are big projects, based on big dreams. Much as the inspirational success of Carrifran Wildwood is underpinned by the coordinated knowledge of naturalists and efforts of an enthusiastic community, these factors will also ultimately determine the success of the Darwin Tree of Life project.

How could you be involved?

We’re happy to hear from taxonomic specialists interested in interacting with collections and we are also keen to receive thoughts on which species to collect. For example, are there any species emblematic of the Borders Forest Trust project that might be specially good subjects for Darwin Tree of Life sampling? Perhaps the Northern Dart moth (Xestia alpicola), a UK Biodiversity action plan priority species, which in the past 10 years has been found in remarkable and unexpected numbers at sites in the Southern Uplands. Please contact us if you have any species you would like to suggest, or would be interested in contributing any taxonomic expertise to collecting efforts. If you would like to know more about the Darwin Tree of Life, and how you can be involved, we’d be very happy to answer your questions.

General enquiries: 

Andy Griffiths – ag30@sanger.ac.uk

Michelle Stamp – michelle@bordersforesttrust.org

Bryophyte specific enquiries: 

David Bell – DBell@rbge.org.uk