The first digital tree of life was put together by 11 different organizations and covers 2.3 million species of animals, plants, microbes, and fungi, all trailing back to the same common ancestor.
The achievement was made by aggregating tens of thousands of previously published trees of life into one big, comprehensive map that includes all life forms known to us so far. It’s a remarkable achievement, with the evolution of living beings in the diagram being tracked 3.5 billion years into the past.
The digital tree of life can be browsed online by anyone who visits opentreeoflife.org, and is constantly updated by researchers.
The scientific community generally agrees that all life on Earth spawned from the same common ancestor, and the field experts behind the new study hope that their project will help scientists get a sense of how all the different species on out planet are related to one another, and use that information to gain a better understanding of how viruses work and to improve agricultural methods.
It’s worth mentioning that while impressive, the digital tree of life still needs to be updated as Dr. Karen Cranston, lead scientists and computational phylogeneticist from Duke University, gave a statement saying that “There’s a pretty big gap between the sum of what scientists know about how living things are related, and what’s actually available digitally”.
She and her team informed that just one (1) in six (6) studies published throughout the decade proceeding 2012, in roughly 100 journals, actually have digital data that can be used by other interested parties.
They also explained that most of the evolutionary trees available to researchers can be found in either PDF format or image format, neither of which can be downloaded and added to another pool of data. Overall, there’s an estimated of 7.500 phylogenetic trees, both downloadable and undownloadable.
The first digital tree of life only incorporated 484 of all these phylogenetic trees. But Dr. Cranston said that this is just “the first real attempt to connect the dots and put it all together. Think of it as version 1.0”.
She went on to describe what the second faze of the project will look like. She and her team would like other biologists to make more trees of life available and contribute with them to the first digital tree of life.
She also asked her peers to revise existing information and said that if it all goes well, the mechanism will be not unlike that that people use to contribute to Wikipedia.
Douglas Soltis, genetics professor from the University of Florida, has praised the accomplishment saying that 25 years ago no one thought such a goal would ever be possible. He considers the first digital tree of life to be “an important starting point that other investigators can now” improve and refine for decades and decades.
Compiling the data available right now and building the computer code for the project took three (3) years, and the researchers from Duke University were only able to take so little because they collaborated with researchers from the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, University of Florida, the University of Michigan, George Washington University, and Interrobang (a web development firm).
The paper detailing the first digital tree of life was published earlier this month, on September 18, 2015, in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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