Why Do We Need Big Trees, Anyway?

An explicit goal of the Open Tree of Life is to create a single phylogenetic tree that encompasses all living (and some extinct) biodiversity on earth. A question some may have, especially non-scientists, is why do we need a tree like that, and what would we do with it? You can’t even see it all at once, right? The answer to this question, of course, is that with bigger and more resolved trees we can answer evolutionary questions on scales not previously possible.

Currently, postdocs from the labs of Doug Soltis (Univ. of Florida) and Stephen Smith (Univ. of Michigan) are collaborating on several projects within the plant world that leverage the power of big trees. Cody Hinchliff, a postdoc in the Smith lab, recently presented some of these findings during a standing room only presentation at the Botanical Society of America conference in Boise, Idaho, employing a tree with almost complete generic level sampling to unravel evolution and diversification of epiphytes across vascular plants. Perhaps most surprisingly, Hinchliff found that most epiphyte lineages are relatively young, suggesting that either the widespread success that epiphytes currently exhibit is a recent phenomenon, or that epiphytic lineages are relatively short lived and evolve opportunistically in response to large-scale climate fluctuations. This, and other associated findings, are novel and exciting discoveries, and are examples of the insights that can be gleaned by analyzing character data across a massive data set.

Other collaborative “big tree” projects involving the Soltis and Smith labs involve the evolution of the aquatic habit within land plants and the evolution of floral characters in the order Lamiales. These studies involve Hinchliff and Stephen Smith, Bryan Drew from the University of Nebraska at Kearney (formerly a postdoc with Doug Soltis) and Doug Soltis, and undergraduates from all three institutions. The aquatic evolution project is looking at how the re-colonization of aquatic plants is linked to lineage diversification and whether an aquatic habit is associated with other character or habitat traits. The focus of the Lamiales study is investigating what suites of floral characters may be responsible for the extraordinary evolutionary success of the lineage, which at 23,000 species comprise about 1/12th of all flowering plants.

The fact that studies of this magnitude are not only possible, but ongoing, is a testament to the utility of big trees. Because these trees are nearly complete in terms of genera, we can account for virtually all diversity across these clades. Sparse lineage sampling and hence unaccounted for diversity has previously been a hindrance when analyzing evolutionary trends that span the tree of life, but the time is approaching (or might be here already!) where the size of the phylogenies will not be the limiting factor in studying broad scale evolutionary questions. This exciting development leaves researchers more time to examine and ponder truly interesting questions that could not be addressed previously. This is the power that big trees give us, and this is one of the reasons we need big trees.

Chronogram showing epiphytic evolution within vascular plants. Epiphytic lineages are shown in orange, and likely branches of epiphytic origin are in red. Root of tree is ~485 million years old.

Chronogram showing epiphytic evolution within vascular plants. Epiphytic lineages are shown in orange, and likely branches of epiphytic origin are in red. Root of tree is ~485 million years old.

Doug Soltis is a distinguished professor at the University of Florida.
Bryan Drew was previously a post-doctoral researcher in the Soltis lab and is currently an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska-Kearney.

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