A new research project kicks off a digital tree of life with 2.3 million species. Now it is up to the global science community to make it complete.
Researchers have released a first draft of the "tree of life" for the roughly 2.3 million named species of animals, plants, fungi and microbes.
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A collaborative effort among eleven institutions, the tree depicts the relationships among living things as they diverged from one another over time, tracing back to the beginning of life on Earth more than 3.5 billion years ago.
Tens of thousands of smaller trees have been published over the years for select branches of the tree of life with upwards of 100,000 species, but this is the first time those results have been combined into a single tree that encompasses all of life.
The end result is a digital resource that is available free online for anyone to use or edit, much like a "Wikipedia" for evolutionary trees.
The current version of the tree is available to browse and download here.
"This is the first real attempt to connect the dots and put it all together," said principal investigator Karen Cranston of Duke University. "Think of it as Version 1.0."
Rather than build the tree of life from scratch, the researchers pieced it together by compiling thousands of smaller chunks that had already been published online and merging them together into a gigantic "supertree" that encompasses all named species.
The initial draft is based on nearly 500 smaller trees from previously published studies.
"Although a massive undertaking in its own right, this draft tree of life represents only a first step," the researchers wrote.
The vast majority of evolutionary trees are published as PDFs and other image files that are impossible to enter into a database or merge with other trees.
"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," Cranston said.
As a result, the relationships depicted in some parts of the tree, such as the branches representing the pea and sunflower families, don't always agree with expert opinion.
"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.
To help fill in the gaps, the team is also developing software that will enable researchers to log on and update and revise the tree as new data come in for the millions of species still being named or discovered.
"It's by no means finished," Cranston said. "It's critically important to share data for already-published and newly-published work if we want to improve the tree."
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The details of this research have been published in the paper titled "Synthesis of Phylogeny and Taxonomy Into a Comprehensive Tree of Life," C. Hinchliff et al. proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.