The interconnectedness of life on Earth has long fascinated scientists and many others. The idea that the millions of species living on this planet sprang from a handful of common ancestors has intrigued humankind since the days of Darwin. Now, for the first time, we’re seeing a map of how that evolution took place, with the release of the first draft of the Tree of Life.
The Tree of Life, a collaborative effort among 11 institutions, illustrates the divergence of Earth’s species – mapping around 2.3m of them – since the beginning of life on our planet, some 3.5bn years ago.
Thousands of smaller evolutionary trees have been created in various studies over the years, but the Tree of Life is the first instance of them being combined in a single genetic map.
“This is the first real attempt to connect the dots and put it all together,” said principal investigator Karen Cranston of Duke University to Phys.org. “Think of it as Version 1.0.”
The researchers built the Tree of Life by drawing on thousands of those smaller trees – the ones that had been published online, at least.
And therein lies the project’s main difficulty: its incompleteness.
According to Phys.org, the majority of existing evolutionary trees are not available in a form that can be digitally downloaded and used by the researchers.
As such, this first draft of the Tree of Life does not represent the entirety of life on Earth. It also, at times, doesn’t necessarily represent the breadth of expert opinion.
Speaking to Phys.org, co-author Douglas Soltis of the University of Florida said: “As important as showing what we do know about the relationships [between species], this first Tree of Life is also important in revealing what we don’t know”.
But why create the Tree of Life at all?
While evolutionary trees are fascinating in their own rights, they can also be an important tool, allowing scientists and researchers to discover new drugs and track the spread of infectious diseases.
This first draft is an important first step in creating a useful source of information for researchers.
Crucially, the Tree of Life will be open source. The team behind the project is developing software that will make it possible for researchers to log in and make revisions to the map, based on new studies.
In this way, it will be possible to ensure that the Tree of Life will always represent the best knowledge available to us, and that it will eventually incorporate all known elements of life on Earth.
Like Earth’s species, it will continue to evolve.