UF team to help assemble first tree of life for Earth’s 2 million species
While scientists have studied evolutionary relationships between different groups of organisms since Darwin first coined the idea of a tree of life 150 years ago, researchers involved with the three-year, multi-institutional initiative aim to merge existing information in a comprehensive universal tree and database for all 2 million named species. Ten institutions are involved in the $5.6 million project, part of NSF’s Assembling, Visualizing and Analyzing the Tree of Life project.
An open-access tree of life will benefit biologists as well as the general public. Understanding organisms’ relationships is increasingly valuable for tracking the origin and spread of emerging diseases, creating agricultural and pharmaceutical products, controlling invasive species and establishing plans for conservation and ecosystem restoration.
“The project is ambitious — we plan to assemble a first draft tree of life for the 1.8 million named species,” said co-principal investigator Doug Soltis, a distinguished professor in UF’s biology department. “Nothing on this scale has ever been done. It is the biodiversity equivalent of the human genome project.”
Funding begins June 1 for the project, which involves a multidisciplinary team of scientists and computer software developers. UF’s participation includes two professors as principal investigators and two employees at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus as part of the project assessment team.
“This is far bigger than any single scientist, and that’s why we’ve put a large group of people together that includes computational biologists and computer scientists, as well as taxonomists working on different groups,” said co-principal investigator Gordon Burleigh, a professor in UF’s biology department. “It’s a very exciting cross-disciplinary project.”
Along with a draft of the universal tree of life, which UF project leaders hope to complete within the first year, researchers will develop tools for updating and revising the tree as new data become available to facilitate sharing and ongoing revisions of relationships, Burleigh said.
“The idea is to build a lot of resources for the scientific community so people can interact with these data,” Burleigh said. “We can change these estimates of the tree of life as we get more information, or we can represent parts of the tree of life where there’s disagreement about the relationships. Part of the project is building the tree of life, but the other part of the project is allowing people to use and interact with it.”
Dubbed the “Open Tree of Life,” the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham, N.C., is leading the project, which also includes researchers from Brigham Young University, Clark University, the Field Museum of Natural History, Michigan State University, the University of Kansas, the University of Michigan, Smith College and Texas A&M University. Betty Dunckel and Shari Ellis of the Florida Museum comprise the project assessment team.
While initial data collected for the project will not be new, much of it is only available in academic journals. Researchers will be challenged with accessing the information and creating tools to synthesize such a breadth of information, Burleigh said.
“I think this is one thing that’s been missing from the scientific community — a lot of work has been done, but it’s not open to the public — there’s no mechanism to access and use a lot of the data,” Burleigh said. “There’s been tremendous progress building trees for different parts of the tree of life, but there hasn’t been a large-scale synthesis to build the tree of life. There’s no tree of everything — that’s where this project comes in.”
For more information about the project, please visit www.opentreeoflife.org.