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Scientists plan to map genes of all complex life on Earth

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Scientists launched a vast project on Thursday to map the genetic code of all 1.5 million known species of complex life on Earth, aiming to complete the work within a decade.

They described the Earth BioGenome Project (EBP) as “the next moonshot for biology” after the Human Genome Project, a 13-year $3.9 billion Cdn endeavor to map human DNA which was completed in 2003.

The EBP is expected to cost $6.2 billion and “will ultimately create a new foundation for biology to drive solutions for preserving biodiversity and sustaining human societies,” said Harris Lewin, a professor at the University of California in the United States and chair of the EBP.

“Having the roadmap, the blueprints … will be a tremendous resource for new discoveries, understanding the rules of life, how evolution works, new approaches for the conservation of rare and endangered species, and … new resources for researchers in agricultural and medical fields,” he told a briefing in London.

A bullet ant (Paraponera Clavatta) walks on a leaf at the Braullio Carrillo National Park in Costa Rica. The EBP will draw on major research efforts such as the Global Ant Genomes Alliance, which aims to sequence around 200 ant genomes. (Juan Carlos Ulate/Reuters)

This plan will draw in major research efforts from across the world, including a U.S.-led project aiming to sequence the genetic code of all 66,000 vertebrates, a Chinese project to sequence 10,000 plant genomes, and the Global Ant Genomes Alliance, which aims to sequence around 200 ant genomes.

In Britain, genome sequences for red and grey squirrels, the European robin, the Fen raft spider and the blackberry will be added to the vast database.

The volume of biological data that will be gathered is expected to be on the “exascale” — more than that accumulated by Twitter, YouTube or the whole of astronomy.

French scientist Claude Murat looks at DNA fingerprints of truffles. So far, fewer than 3,500 complex life species, or only about 0.2 per cent, have had their genomes sequenced. (Vincent Kessler/Reuters)

Jim Smith, director of science at the Wellcome Trust global health charity, said the project would be “internationally inspirational” and — like the Human Genome Project — had the potential to transform research into health and disease.

“From nature we shall gain insights into how to develop new treatments for infectious diseases, identify drugs to slow aging, generate new approaches to feeding the world or create new bio materials,” he told the briefing.

0.2% sequenced so far

So far, fewer than 3,500 complex life species, or only about 0.2 per cent, have had their genomes sequenced. Fewer than 100 of those have been done to “reference quality” level useful for researchers to access and learn from.

A red squirrel sits on a walnut tree in Pitlochry, Scotland, Britain October 10, 2018. In Britain, genome sequences for red and grey squirrels are among those that will be added to the vast new database. (Russell Cheyne/Reuters)

The plan is for the EBP to add many thousands more reference quality genome sequences, which scientists say will revolutionize understanding of biology and evolution, boost conservation efforts and protect biodiversity.

Lewin said signs of rapid decreases in biodiversity and increases in the number of species becoming endangered or extinct underlined the urgency of the project.

“We desperately need to catalog life on our planet now,” he said. “We will do this not because it’s easy, but because it is hard and because it’s important to do.”

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The ‘Maple Majestic’ wants to be Canada’s homegrown Tesla

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Look out Tesla, Canada has a homegrown electric sedan on the way. Well, that’s if AK International Motor Corporation can drum up enough investment to make its EV a reality. Dubbed the “Maple Majestic,” the vehicle is a battery-electric designed to “excel in extreme climate performance without adversely affecting the climate, as befits a vehicle from Canada,” according to its website.

What’s in a name? — The company says the maple leaf is a “symbol of Canada’s warmth and friendliness towards all cultures,” while “majestic” refers to the country’s “status as a Constitutional Monarchy.”

That patriotism carries over into Maple Majestic’s parent company’s lofty goals. AK Motor founder Arkadiusz Kaminski says he wants the company, which he founded in 2012, to become “Canada’s first multi-brand automotive OEM,” and that the “Maple Majestic is intended to be Canada’s flagship brand of automobiles on the world stage.”

Partnerships are key — “We acknowledge that the best chance for the Maple Majestic brand to succeed, lies in continuing to build the relationship with Canada’s parts suppliers and technological innovators, whether they be academic institutions, corporations, or individual inventors,” the company explains. “We are currently seeking partners in automotive engineering, parts manufacturing, automotive assembly, electric propulsion technology, battery technology, autonomous technology, and hybrid power generation technology.”

In other words, don’t expect to be able to buy a Maple Majestic any time soon… and don’t expect to pour over 0-60 mph times, power output, range, or other key stats, because those don’t currently exist. For now, all we have are pictures and a short video clip. But at least those are arresting.

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PE-backed Quorum Software to merge with Canadian energy tech firm

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Houston-based energy technology company Quorum Software will merge with a Canadian tech firm to bolster its presence in oil and gas services.

Quorum announced Feb. 15 it plans to merge with Calgary, Alberta-based Aucerna, a global provider of planning, execution and reserves software for the energy sector. The combined firm will operate under the Quorum Software brand.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software, will continue in his capacity as chief executive of the combined firm. Austin, former CEO of Austin-based marketing tech firm Bazaarvoice Inc., became CEO of Quorum in December 2018.

Aucerna co-founder and CEO Wayne Sim will be appointed to the Quorum Software board of directors. Both companies are backed by San Francisco- and Chicago-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo.

“Over the last 20 years, Quorum has become the leading innovator of software deployed by North American energy companies,” said Austin. “Today, Quorum is expanding the scope of our technology and expertise to all energy-producing regions of the globe. Customers everywhere will have access to a cloud technology ecosystem that connects decision-ready data from operations to the boardroom.”

In addition to the merger announcement, Quorum Software announced it had entered into an agreement with Finnish IT firm TietoEvry to purchase TietoEvry’s entire oil and gas business. The agreement, which includes hydrocarbon management, personnel and material logistics software and related services, is valued at 155 million euros, or $188 million, according to a statement from TietoEvry.

“Our three organizations complement each other — from the software that our great people design to the energy markets where we operate,” said Sim. “Our new company will be able to deliver value to our stakeholders, while accelerating the growth of our combined business and the energy industry’s software transformation.”

The combined company will serve over 1,800 energy companies in 55 countries, according to the announcement. With its headquarters in Houston, Quorum will continue to have a significant presence in Calgary and in Norway, the headquarters for TietoEvry’s oil and gas software business. Quorum will have other offices throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

As of Sept. 30, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo had more than $73 billion in assets under management. In late December 2020, Thoma Bravo agreed to acquire Richardson, Texas-based tech firm RealPage in a roughly $10 billion acquisition.

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Piece of Kitchener technology lands on Mars on Perseverance rover

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KITCHENER — A piece of Kitchener technology has landed on Mars, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover.

The rover settled on the planet’s surface on Thursday afternoon. It’s been travelling through space since it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in July.

“The whole idea of being on a device that we’re sending to another plant with the express mission of looking for traces of past life, it’s pretty mind boggling actually,” said Rafal Pawluczyk, chief technical officer for FiberTech Optica.

The Kitchener-based company made fibre optic cables for the rover’s SuperCam that will examine samples with a camera, laser and spectrometers.

“The cables that we built take the light from that multiplexer and deliver it to each spectrograph,” Pawluczyk said.

The cables connect a device on the rover to the SuperCam, which will be used to examine rock and soil samples, to spectrometers. They’ll relay information from one device to another.

The project started four years ago with a connection to Los Alamos National Lab, where the instruments connected to the cables were developed.

“We could actually demonstrate we can design something that will meet their really hard engineering requirements,” Pawluczyk said.

The Jezero Crater is where the Perseverance rover, with FiberTech Optica’s technology onboard, landed Thursday. Scientists believe it was once flooded with water and is the best bet for finding any evidence of life. FiberTech’s cables will help that in that search.

Ioannis Haranas, an astrophysicist and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the rover isn’t looking for “green men.”

“They’re looking for microbial, single-cell life, any type of fossils and stuff like that,” Haranas said. “That’s why they chose a special landing site. This could be very fertile land for that.”

“It’s very ambitious,” said Ralf Gellert, a physics professor at the University of Guelph.

Gellert helped with previous rover missions and said it’s the first time a Mars rover has landed without a piece of Guelph technology on it. While he’s not part of Perseverance’s mission, he said the possibilities are exciting.

“Every new landing site is a new piece of the puzzle that you can put together with the new results that we have from the other landing sites,” he said.

“It’s scientifically very interesting because, even though we don’t have an instrument on that rover, we can compare what the new rover Perseverance finds at this new landing site,” he said.

Now that Perseverance has landed on Mars, FiberTech is looking ahead to its next possible mission into space.

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