Durham, NC A new initiative aims to build a grand tree of life that brings together everything scientists know about how all living things are related, from the tiniest bacteria to the tallest tree.
Scientists have been building evolutionary trees for more than 150 years, ever since Charles Darwin drew the first sketches in his notebook. But despite significant progress in fleshing out the major branches of the tree of life, today there is still no central place where researchers can go to browse and download the entire tree.
"Where can you go to see their collective results in one resource? The surprising thing is you can't at least not yet," said Dr. Karen Cranston of the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center.
But now, thanks to a three-year, $5.76 million grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation, a team of scientists and developers from ten universities aims to make that a reality.
Figuring out how the millions of species on Earth are related to one another isn't just important for pinpointing an aardvark's closest cousins, or determining if hagfish are more closely related to sand dollars or sea squirts. Information about evolutionary relationships has helped scientists identify promising new medicines, develop hardier, higher-yielding crops, and fight infectious diseases such as HIV, anthrax and influenza.
If evolutionary trees are so widely used, why has assembling them across all of life been so hard to achieve? It's not for lack of research, or data. Thanks in large part to advances in DNA sequencing, thousands of new phylogenetic trees are published in scientific journals each year most of them focused on isolated branches of the tree of life, for everything from birds to botflies.
"There's a firehose of data," said Cranston, principal investigator of the project. "[Over the years] scientists have published tens of thousands of evolutionary trees, but there's been very little work to co
|Contact: Robin Ann Smith|
National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent)