2.3 Million Species in One Tree…A Decent Start!

Just published yesterday in the early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is a tour de force of thinking big, working together, and demonstrating that even science that is messy and incomplete can be incredibly useful and worthy of publication.

In an article with the dense, yet understated, title “Synthesis of phylogeny and taxonomy into a comprehensive tree of life”, twenty-two authors from thirteen institutions (supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation) present their initial effort at building a single tree to model how all living things on Earth are related. Their tree is available to all, on-line, in an open source format, so that everyone can explore it freely and researchers can add their own data.

The project made widespread headlines this week, from Science News to CNET to The Christian Science Monitor. But why? Why is a crazy complicated looking diagram such a big deal? Well, for one thing, trees are important. Understanding how one organism is related to all others is important in biology for so many reasons. Whether you’re looking for a potential drought-resistant crop, a more potent version of an antibiotic, the best model organism to study a particular disease, or the most promising algal strain to cultivate for biofuels, it’s helpful to be able to look for clues in closely related species. Trees are so useful that they’ve become a standard part of biological investigations–countless phylogenies (trees generated by organizing species according to the traits they share) have been generated for all manner of organisms.

Here’s the thing, though. As Stephanie Keep so ably explained in her four part “Do You Talk Tree?” series (here, and here, and here, and here), phylogenetic trees are models. They are generated by computer programs with many —> Read More