Understanding Our World

Essential information about how life works is contained in the genomes of each and every species on Earth. Researchers at the Smithsonian have studied the external characteristics of species and their environments for more than a hundred years, and we are now addressing today’s key biological questions through the study of genomes.

Determining which genomes will be sequenced will be guided by the critical questions pursued by our scientists and partners, and by the species and ecological systems most likely to provide important insights and applications.

The Institute for Biodiversity Genomics will focus on the Smithsonian’s existing areas of inquiry and expertise:

Origins, Diversity, and Patterns of Life

Phylogenomics is a branch of biology that uses genome-scale data to delve into the evolutionary relationships between organisms—the “tree of life”—with greater accuracy than ever before. At the Smithsonian, we have the largest collection of taxonomists in the world and are one of the few organizations with this level of phylogenetic expertise.

Adaptation, Environmental Resilience, and Evolutionary Novelty

One of the most pressing issues facing science today is understanding how organisms respond to environmental change, including when faced with the threat of infectious diseases. Many insights can be obtained by comparing genomic and functional differences among individuals, species, and communities. These genomic variations can be compared directly and indirectly with the genomes of extinct organisms and place modern species into a historical context.

Ecosystem Function and Ecological Processes

All individual organisms exist in connection with other individuals and species, and recent genomic research has demonstrated the critical importance of microbiomes—the ecological community of symbiotic and pathogenic microorganisms that share the same space. Smithsonian scientists are also using metagenomics—the bulk genetic analysis of organisms in environmental samples, such as soil or water—to address large-scale ecological and environmental questions. This work relies heavily on well-curated genetic databases (e.g., DNA barcodes), and the Smithsonian has been a world leader in building these genetic databases.

Environmental Sustainability and Conservation

Greater understanding of the evolutionary histories and genetic diversity of biological populations is essential to sustaining a biodiverse planet. Smithsonian researchers study populations of plants and animals in ecosystems throughout the world, using a variety of genomic tools to define new species, identify populations and species in danger of extinction, and develop management strategies for the maintenance of genetic variation and viable populations.