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Evolution and Disease-Tracking: All Life Mapped? [DIGITAL]

Sep 18, 2015 04:59 PM EDT

Scientists have stepped considerably closer to defining the relationships among 2.3 million organisms, both living and extinct: animals, fungi, plants, microbes, and all. That is, researchers from eleven institutions collaborated to show how all living things are connected and how they diverged from one another in the past. This new research looks at interrelationships back to the start of life on Earth, or 3.5 billion years ago and counting. The result and the research were recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

While smaller "trees" have been developed and released over the years, this is the first time that learnings have been put together into a single branching entity. It is available digitally and free online, and is editable like Wikipedia is.
"This is the first real attempt to connect the dots and put it all together," said principal investigator Karen Cranston of Duke University, in a release. "Think of it as Version 1.0."

You can check out and download a copy of the tree at the project website. 

Such trees, which show the pattern of evolution, help explain what happened to millions of species and help in the discovery of new pharmaceuticals. They also lend us a hand in increasing livestock and crop yields; and they outline the spread of infectious diseases like HIV, Ebola and the flu, the release said. 

The researchers merged nearly 500 already-established trees to create this one. One challenge to their work was keeping track of name changes and alternates. For instance, the eastern red bat has often been listed under two scientific names, Lasiurus borealis and Nycteris borealis. Moray eels and some anteaters shared the same scientific name. 

Simply being available online makes this one stand out among trees, too. Between 2000 and 2012, only one out of six studies was put into a digital and downloadable format that could be used later by other researchers, according to the release.

"Twenty five years ago people said this goal of huge trees was impossible," Soltis said in the release. "The Open Tree of Life is an important starting point that other investigators can now refine and improve for decades to come."

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