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.
Biology + Technology = OTOL
One of the developers of the Open Tree of Life demonstrates Thursday, during a free webinar, how graph databases are used to construct a tree of life. The lecture is organized by Neo Technology, which is the maker of Neo4j, an open-source database that is used for OTOL.
Stephen Smith, an ecology and evolutionary biology professor at the University of Michigan, is going to explain how Neo4j and other digital technologies are assisting in constructing the tree of life. Starting at 10:00 PDT (19:00 CEST), he will also discuss other aspects of the interface of biology with next generation technologies.
“Our project is building the tools with which scientists in the community can continually improve the tree of life as we gather new information. Neo4j allows us to not only store trees in their native graph form, but also allows us to map trees to the same structure, the graph. So in fact, we are facilitating the construction of the graph of life,” says Smith.
Neo4j approached the Open Tree of Life team to present a webinar because it is a project that utilizes the Neo4j graph database to represent the interconnectedness of biological data. The company considers the project a great example of how a graph database can better model the natural world.
The online lecture is intended for a broad audience including beginner computer programmers, advanced hackers, data scientists, natural scientists, and anyone interested in the cross-section of science and technology, especially data modeling. Over 150 people have already registered online.
The registration form: LINK
Update: The video from this webinar is available on vimeo: http://vimeo.com/67870035
Crandall featured on PeerJ blog
Open Tree of Life investigator Keith Crandall is featured on the blog of PeerJ, which is a peer-reviewed, open access journal on the Internet. Crandall is an Academic Editor for PeerJ and is the director of the Computational Biology Institute at George Washington University. He was the editor for the “living fossil” manuscript that got much news media attention last week. Here’s the link to the interview.
Do you want an app for this?
The developers of the Open Tree of Life would like to know from the phylogenetic community what kind of information they want to extract from its database when the first draft is released later this year. With those preferences, it is possible to develop an API that gives scientists the opportunity to build their own websites or software packages that use the data.
An API (application programming interface) is a digital tool that allows one website or software program to “talk” to another website to dig up certain pieces of data. For instance, a lot of people use Tweetdeck to navigate the ongoing bombardment of messages in the Twittersphere. In that case, Tweetdeck is connecting to Twitter, through its API, to receive and order the messages according to the preferences of the user.
In case of the Open Tree of Life, an API gives researchers advanced access to the data of about two million species, the phylogenies that have been created to illustrate possible relationships between them, and the underlying data and methods of synthesis. “For example, it will be possible to select smaller trees for specific species or find out how many studies there are for a particular node within the database,” says Karen Cranston, the lead investigator of the project. (more…)
Where are the fungi datasets?
A couple thousand fungi phylogeny studies have been published in the past twelve years. Clark University postdoc researcher Romina Gazis has gone through all of them. Now she is working on a bigger challenge: finding all the trees and datasets that were the foundation of those studies.
Ideally, all scientists who publish a phylogenetic tree would also deposit the datasets they used to create such trees at a publicly available online database. That allow other researchers to synthesize data from different sources to advance the knowledge about relationships between certain species and their evolutionary history.
Unfortunately, most of those datasets are not publicly available. Gazis only found datasets for about a quarter of the two-thousand fungi articles she surveyed. “Around 600 studies had tree files available, but not necessarily complete,” she concluded. “Some scientists deposited one but not all the trees.” (more…)
All species like some gadgets
While movie hero James Bond gets his spy gadgets from his loyal developer Q, almost every other species on Earth has to put a little more effort in armoring themselves. But that does not mean they cannot rely on some good ol’ friends to do so. In fact, the acquisition of genes from two or more species through lateral gene transfer can lead to innovations that at times can be painful—sometimes even deadly—to others.
One of those evolutionary novelties is noticeable for certain types of jellyfish that developed the ability to sting after their ancestors acquired a gene from a bacterium and incorporated that material in their own DNA. This gene transmission helped jellyfish to create an innovative defense tool to fend off other species that could endanger them. The result is quite frightening: more humans get killed by jellyfish than sharks. (more…)