Part of the difficulty lies in the sheer enormity of the task. The largest evolutionary trees built to-date contain roughly 100,000 taxa. Assembling the branches for all two million named species of animals, plants, fungi and microbes not to mention the countless more still being named or discovered will require new tools for analyzing large data sets and stitching together vast numbers of published trees.
Another difficulty lies in how scientists typically disseminate their results. A tiny fraction of all evolutionary trees that have been published researchers estimate a mere 4% end up in a database in a digital form. Instead, most of that knowledge is locked up in figures in journal articles, as PDFs or other file formats that are impossible for other researchers to download, reanalyze, or merge with new information.
This new initiative dubbed Open Tree of Life (http://opentreeoflife.org) aims to change all that.
What makes this project different from previous efforts, the researchers say, is its scope. "This is the first real attempt to put together the entire tree of life," Cranston said.
The team hopes to have a first draft of the complete evolutionary tree compiled from the evolutionary trees that are already available in existing databases by August 2013. The first draft that emerges will be far from finished. "There will always be new studies that come out," Cranston said. "There will also be places in the tree where we don't have enough data, or where the data lead to conflicting hypotheses, or where groups of researchers simply disagree."
But with a first draft in hand, scientists will be able to go online and compare their trees to others that have already been published, or download it for further study. They'll also be able to expand the tree, filling in the missing branch
|Contact: Robin Ann Smith|
National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent)