Key milestone in biology

Scientists have generated high quality DNA sequences for several vertebrate species, as part of a worldwide effort to understand the complete genetic makeup, or genomes, of more than 70,000 animals with backbones that includes mammals, such as humans, reptiles, amphibians, birds and fishes. The Vertebrate Genomes Project (VGP), which began five years ago, demonstrated in a series of landmark studies published in Nature and other prominent scientific journals that researchers are now able to produce near error-free, high-quality animal genome sequences. These genome sequences will address central questions in biology and disease, identify species threatened with extinction, and conserve genetic information of sequenced animals for posterity.

Farooq Omar Al-Ajli, a PhD candidate at Monash University Malaysia, and the Lead Investigator of Qatar Falcon Genome Project, is among the co-authors of two VGP papers, including the flagship paper published in the prestigious Nature journal in April 2021. Al-Ajli sequenced and assembled the gyrfalcon genome as part of a collaboration between the Qatar Falcon Genome Project, Monash University Malaysia and VGP. He defines the study as a landmark paper in genomics: "It is setting the standards for reference genome sequencing for the future, and making high-quality genome sequences accessible to researchers worldwide".

Al-Ajli also added that the VGP and its Genome Ark database have made conservation genomics a tangible and practical approach to addressing global mass extinction. Monash University Malaysia and Qatar Falcon Genome Project are active members in VGP, through Al-Ajli's work on falcon genomics, with plans to expand their collaboration by including more indigenous species as part of the Malaysian BioGenome Project.

Professor Sadequr Rahman, Director of the Tropical Medicine and Biology Multidisciplinary Platform, School of Science, Monash Malaysia, who supervised Al-Ajli's PhD project, said that he was delighted with his student's achievements. "Farooq Al-Ajli brought together the Qatar Falcon Genome Project, Monash University Malaysia and the VGP, showcasing what is possible with a student whose research is driven by passion, which in this case is to contribute to the conservation of falcons", Professor Sadequr stated.

Associate Professor Qasim Ayub, who is also Al-Ajli's co-supervisor, shares that “such studies demonstrate how DNA sequencing, and improvements in joining sequences together, that are described in the current publication, can lead to better resolution of genomic variation and improve population studies that promote bio-conservation of species. Such studies can be used to capture the molecular basis of biodiversity and understand evolutionary adaptations in any species, including birds of prey that Farooq is passionate about.”

The availability of high-quality genome sequences for all vertebrate species, especially endangered ones, will allow us to address the conservation question from novel angles and help us manage and inform conservation efforts more effectively. "The implications are even more pressing for a megafauna country like Malaysia, which is the home to many iconic, endemic, yet endangered vertebrates. Other ambitious and cutting-edge conservation and genome editing efforts, such as the possible recovery of extinct animals and genome engineering, can also benefit from the results developed by VGP," said Al-Ajli.

The VGP involves hundreds of international scientists working together across more than 50 institutions in 12 different countries and is exemplary in its scientific cooperation, extensive infrastructure, and collaborative leadership. It is chaired by Professor Erich Jarvis, a prominent investigator at Howard Hughes Medical Institute, USA.

Monash University Malaysia Genomics Facility and Tropical Medicine and Biology Multidisciplinary Platform in the School of Science are among the contributors to this landmark study.

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