Press Release 12-106 (original article)
Assembling, Visualizing and Analyzing a Tree of All Life
National Science Foundation grants will bring together what’s known about how species are related
The “Open Tree of Life” is one of three major new scientific projects funded by the NSF.
June 4, 2012
A new initiative aims to build a comprehensive tree of life that brings together everything scientists know about how all species are related, from the tiniest bacteria to the tallest tree.
Researchers are working to provide the infrastructure and computational tools to enable automatic updating of the tree of life, as well as develop the analytical and visualization tools to study it.
Scientists have been building evolutionary trees for more than 150 years, 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 visualize and analyze the entire tree.
Now, thanks to grants totaling $13 million from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Assembling, Visualizing, and Analyzing the Tree of Life (AVAToL) program, three teams of scientists plan to make that a reality.
Tree of Life Project Aims for Every Twig and Leaf
By CARL ZIMMER
Published: June 4, 2012
In 1837, Charles Darwin opened a notebook and drew a simple tree with a few branches. Each branch, which he labeled with a letter, represented a species. In that doodle, he captured his newfound realization that species were related, having evolved from a common ancestor. Across the top of the page he wrote, “I think.”
Two decades later Darwin presented a detailed account of the tree of life in “On the Origin of Species.” And much of evolutionary biology since then has been dedicated to illuminating parts of the tree. Using DNA, fossils and other clues, scientists have been able to work out the relationships of many groups of organisms, making rough sketches of the entire tree of life. “Animals and fungi are in one part of the tree, and plants are far away in another part,” said Laura A. Katz, an evolutionary biologist at Smith College.
Now Dr. Katz and a number of other colleagues are doing something new. They are drawing a tree of life that includes every known species. A tree, in other words, with about two million branches.
Researchers aim to assemble the tree of life for all 2 million named species
The resulting tree will be digital, downloadable, continuously updated
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.
The tree of life links all biodiversity through a shared evolutionary history. This project will produce the first online, comprehensive first-draft tree of all 1.8 million named species, accessible to both the public and scientific communities. Assembly of the tree will incorporate previously-published results, with strong collaborations between computational and empirical biologists to develop, test and improve methods of data synthesis. This initial tree of life will not be static; instead, we will develop tools for scientists to update and revise the tree as new data come in. Early release of the tree and tools will motivate data sharing and facilitate ongoing synthesis of knowledge.
Biological research of all kinds, including studies of ecological health, environmental change, and human disease, increasingly depends on knowing how species are related to each other. Yet there is no single resource that unites knowledge of the tree of life. Instead, only small parts of the tree are individually available, generally as printed figures in journal articles. This project will provide the global community of scientists who study the tree of life with a means to share and combine their results, and will enable large-scale studies of Earth’s biodiversity. It will also create a resource where students, educators and citizens can go to explore and learn about life’s evolutionary history.