Scientists at Duke and ten other major research institutions have compiled a comprehensive 'Tree of Life' diagram that catalogues over 2.3 million species.
Never before has it been so easy to visualize the vast tree of life. According to a press release from Eurekalert, scientists from Duke University in Durham, NC have catalogued over 2.3 million species of animals, plants, microbes, and fungi in an attempt to draw out the rich 3.5 billion year history of life on Earth.
The tree of life was created by researchers from eleven different institutions. It shows the relationships among living creatures as they diverged from common ancestors over the years, tracing the different species back to their humble origins 3.5 billion years ago.
Over the years, thousands of tinier, more focused species trees have been published. Some include at least 100,000 species, while others are smaller. This, however, is the first time that the results of all of these small-scale studies have been combined and presented in one massive diagram that includes all of the species we know of. It is a veritable “Wikipedia” for each species on Earth and its origins.
According to the principal investigator of the study, Karen Cranston from Duke University, “This is the first real attempt to connect the dots and put it all together. Think of it as Version 1.0.”
The tree of life was described in an article published in the September 18 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Evolutionary maps can be complex, often looking like chandeliers or the map to the world’s most confusing subway system. They can offer great insights into the intricacies of life, however, more so than simply describing which species may be the closest relative of a platypus. Understanding the links, however distant or subtle they may be, between species can help researchers follow new paths of research for drugs, improving agricultural efficiency, and pinpoint the beginnings of infectious diseases like Ebola, the flu, and HIV.
Luckily, the researchers involved with the project didn’t have to start from scratch. They pieced the tree together by taking smaller portions of research already completed and aligning them in a way that made sense as a part of a whole. The first draft includes information from nearly 500 different smaller trees that were previously published.
One of the biggest challenges researchers faced was the constantly changing names of certain species. Over the years, many species had been entered into databases with slightly different spellings, which made it difficult for researchers to be sure they were seeing the whole picture. For example, the eastern red bat is commonly listed under two different names, Lasiurus borealis or Nycteris borealis. Additionally, spiny anteaters and a group of moray eels once shared the same scientific name.
Despite the amazing work of the scientists who put this tree of life together, there is still plenty of work to be done. “It’s by no means finished. It’s critically important to share data for already-published and newly-published work if we want to improve the tree,” Cranston says.
The access to millions of species descriptions has made this massive species map possible. Twenty five years ago, it would have been much more difficult to assemble such an interactive and revealing resource.