Digital Tree of Life Shows Evolution of Nearly Everything

By Joshua Rapp Learn

This circular family tree of Earth's lifeforms is considered a first draft of the 3.5-billion-year history of how life evolved and diverged.

Image Credit: opentreeoflife.org

How exactly is it that a coyote is related to a mushroom, or a whale to a human?

An online draft of the Tree of Life attempts to answer that, showing the various relationships between all known life on the planet.

“This is the first real attempt to connect the dots and put it all together,” said Karen Cranston of Duke University — the principal investigator of a new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences — in a press release. “Think of it as Version 1.0.”

While a great number of studies detailing smaller sections of the trees have been published, the authors say this is first time the whole sum of life on the planet has been compiled into a single place in a digital form.

Cranston also stressed the ongoing nature of this online tool. Since many relationships between species like insects aren’t always well understood, the team is also developing software that will allow researchers to log on, update and revise the tree as new information on these species comes in. Researchers will also be able to add new species to the database when they are discovered.

“As important as showing what we do know about relationships, this first tree of life is also important in revealing what we don’t know,” said co-author Douglas Soltis of the University of Florida in a release.

Joshua LearnJoshua Rapp Learn is a science writer at The Wildlife Society.

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