Mapping the Tree of Life: the ARBOR Project


Open Tree of Life met with ARBOR, a program funded by the National Science Foundation, to talk about what changes have been made featuring the synthetic tree of life. We spoke with Dr. Luke Harmon, an associate professor at the University of Idaho’s department of Biology.  Dr. Harmon has been using comparative biology to determine what the tree of life can tell us about evolution over long time scales.

What has ARBOR been working on right now?

 Comparative Biology is at the heart of the ARBOR project. Using the evolutionary relationships among species, we can learn something about trait evolution and the formation of new species. For example, there really is no basic ‘ladder of life’ stemming from simpler organisms to more complex; instead, evolution varies among groups and through time in complex and interesting ways. It’s hard to do what we do with traditional tools. Instead, we have to use new tools to analyze how species have diversified to generate the tree of life

How have phylogeny studies changed over time?

A lot of progress has been made in the last twenty years regarding our understanding of the relationships among different species. We now know a lot more about how species are related to one another and how they evolved from their common ancestors. The Open Tree of Life is the best possible example of this sort of synthesis – it’s almost like the human genome project in that it is generating a very good map that will connect all organisms on earth in a single phylogenetic tree. One problem, though, is that there is just so much information contained in large phylogenetic trees, and we don’t always know how to extract information about how organisms evolve. ARBOR is developing tools to read the stories of evolution from these phylogenies.


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