Archive for October, 2012

You don’t want to build a new tree from scratch?

‘Let the computer do the work’

Creating a phylogenetic tree is no easy task. It usually involves a complex synthesis of multiple datasets, but it leads to much satisfaction when all work is done—until new data come in.

Then, the process typically starts all over again: building a new tree from scratch.

Mark Holder, a professor of statistical phylogenetics at Kansas University and one of the investigators of the Open Tree of Life project, maintains that there is a real need for scientists to have access to digital tools that save them from doing quite a few labor-intensive procedures.

“In the past, researchers combined information from different trees and then analyzed the data. But they never made good computer systems that allowed for continuous updating. They would not be able to see how an entire tree would look like when they added more data or another individual tree. In that case, they had to start over.”

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Puzzling:

Connecting millions of pieces

Creating the entire tree of life is like completing a jigsaw puzzle with more than two million pieces. And to make it even harder; the illustration of how the solved puzzle would look like is missing.

No one knows precisely how all pieces are related.

This disparity is unmistakably demonstrated by disagreements between evolutionary biologists about how certain species and branches are linked together. Throughout the years they have created a large variety of trees with specific groups of species that contradict each other. For example, one researcher maintains that species A is the closest living relative of species B, but another scientist thinks that species C is actually most closely related to B. (more…)


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Mystery:

Is it a plant? Or is it a monkey?

AotusIt should not be hard to recognize the differences between furry night monkeys and the bright yellow flowers of golden peas. But they have something peculiar in common that leads to some confusion once in while: their name. Both genera are officially known as Aotus.

There are about two million known species on the planet, so it should not come to a surprise that scientists accidentally have given certain species, or groups of species, similar names. For instance, Proboscidea is considered an order of elephants, but it is also the name for the genus of devil’s claws. Other examples include Myrmecia pyriformis (insect and green algae), Ficus elegans (mollusc and plant), Ormosia nobilis (insect and plant), and Trigonidium grande (orchid and katydid).

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Teamwork:

Across disciplinary boundaries

The interdisciplinary team of the Open Tree of Life project

What do a fungal evolutionary biologist and a computer scientist have in common?

It is usually easier to name a long list of differences, but that does not mean that those scholars are investigating different issues all the time. They may be very much interested in the same problems, yet apply different perspectives and methods in search for answers.

Those scientists could continuously work on their individual research projects for may years. However, in some cases only an interdisciplinary collaboration leads to a solution. The investigators of the Open Tree of Life project hope this will be the case for them as well. Their goal: creating a tree of life that includes all 1.9 million known species. (more…)


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