A first draft of the “tree of life” for the roughly 2.3 million named species of animals, plants, fungi and microbes has been released.
A collaborative effort among 11 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–some containing 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.
Understanding how the millions of species on Earth are related to one another helps scientists discover new drugs, increase crop and livestock yields, and trace the origins and spread of infectious diseases such as HIV, Ebola and influenza.
This is the first real attempt to connect the dots and put it all together, said principal investigator Karen Cranston of Duke University, adding that this should be thought of as Version 1.0.
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.
Researcher Stephen Smith said that they hope that this publication will encourage other researchers to contribute their own studies or to enter information from previously published sources.
The study is published online in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.