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Tree of Life project grows more leaves and branches


The Tree of Life is flourishing.

Ceroglossus ochsenii, a beetle in the family Carabidae, photographed near Cucao, Chile. Copyright 2006 David R. Maddison

The Web-based project, a massive collaboration among scientists from all over the world, is growing more "leaves" and "branches" all the time. The project is basically a genealogy of life on Earth coupled with information about the characteristics of individual species and groups of organisms.

Having such scientific data available on the Web makes the information accessible to a wide range of scientists, spurring new collaborations and insights about the relationships between life forms ranging from aardvarks to zoospores.

"My dream is to be able to do grand-scale analyses of patterns of life across all of life," said David Maddison, the originator of the Tree of Life Project and a professor of entomology at The University of Arizona in Tucson. "So much of our understanding of biological patterns is vitally informed by the shape of the evolutionary history that connects life. You need to think about the evolutionary tree along which genes have flowed in order to explain why organisms are as they are."

Now the challenge for project organizers is to develop easier, yet more sophisticated, ways for scientists to contribute to the Tree, and also make the Web-based data easier for the public to contribute to and to use.

Katja Schulz, managing editor of the Tree of Life Project at UA, will discuss the system of user interfaces being built by the project that will allow people ranging from research scientists to school children to publish information about organisms and their evolutionary relationships on the World Wide Web as part of the project.

Schulz said, "It’s bringing big science to people outside the science community."

She will give her talk, "Digital Dissemination of the Tree of Life," on Monday, Feb. 20, at 11:45 a.m. at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in St. Louis. Her presentation will be in Rm. 222 of the America’s Center, 701 Convention Plaza, St. Louis.

The main thrust of the Tree of Life project is to provide a central repository where specialists can publish data on the characteristics, family trees and other scientific information about specific groups of organisms.

Schulz said, "This makes the information accessible to people -- and for free. There’s no one book that has this information. In addition, our site is constantly updated. Although some pages are five years old, other pages are hot off the presses."

Having all the data in one place is the key to facilitating new connections between scientists and new insights about biology. However, to make it possible for various researchers to compare their data, the information is best presented in a standardized format. So one aspect of current work on the project is developing standardized ways for researchers to upload their data, thereby making it easier for researchers to use and compare each others’ data.

Another aspect of the project is public outreach. Schulz said, "The project makes information available to people who might not have access to the written [scientific] literature. ... The Tree of Life started out as a tool for researchers, but it immediately got a lot of attention from teachers and kids."

So she and her colleagues are constructing sections of the Tree that allow the public to contribute and to use the information. "Right now we work with teachers, and we’re starting to do family registration."

A special section of the Web site, called Treehouses, is written by members of the public. "It takes the kids’ interest in being a Web author and combines it with their interest in organisms." The contributions don’t have to be science, she added, citing one page which includes origami figures.

She also wants to improve the visualization tools associated with the Web site. The Tree of Life Web site has more than 4,000 pages and 10,000 pictures. It’s hard to take in the enormity and depth of the tree just by looking. One can get lost ’climbing around’ in the myriad branches.

She’s determined to "make this cool science available to the public."

Mari N. Jensen | EurekAlert!
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