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From alpaca to zebra finch -- a decade of cataloguing life's diversity

Today's publication in Nature of the genetic blueprint for the zebra finch marks 10 years of success for the Ensembl project in helping researchers to navigate the genomes of a Noah's Ark of species.

Ensembl, a genome annotation system co-developed and jointly run by the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI) and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, played a major part in finding the genes and other functionally important features in the zebra finch genome.

For zebra finch, only the second bird to have its genome fully sequenced after the chicken, this interpretation of the genetic code has enabled the sequencing consortium to identify genes expressed in the zebra finch brain that may be responsible for vocalising messages: zebra finches communicate by singing whereas chickens cannot.

"Trying to navigate a genome that has not been annotated with important features such as genes and regulatory regions is a little bit like trying to read a map missing all the labels," explains Paul Flicek, joint head of Ensembl and leader of the Vertebrate Genomics team at EMBL-EBI. "Without this annotation, the data gathered from sequencing projects would remain undecipherable."

Ensembl, which was originally created as a means of cataloguing the genes in the human genome, now contains the complete genetic codes of more than 50 animals. In addition to zebra finch, Ensembl has unravelled the genomes of organisms ranging in complexity from the humble nematode worm through the duck billed platypus to ourselves.

"Genome analysis and comparison is key to linking genes to function and explaining why species differ from each other," says Steve Searle, joint head of Ensembl and of Vertebrate Annotation at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute "In addition to helping us know more about evolutionary relationships and genetic diversity, it also provides the tools to tackle disease at the genetic level."

"Over 10 years Ensembl has become part of the infrastructure of biological research," says Tim Hubbard, Head of Informatics at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. "Looking back it's hard to imagine research before genomes and genome browsers."

Combining information held in Ensembl with the related Ensembl Genomes resource for the genomes of bacteria, fungi, plants, metazoa and protists launched by EMBL-EBI last year, every sequenced genome provides another jigsaw piece in cataloguing the genetic diversity of life.

To view the zebra finch genome in Ensembl visit

Louisa Wright | EurekAlert!
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