From Flamingos to Ferns, Comprehensive ‘Tree of Life’ Links Earth’s 2.3 Million Species

posted: 09/21/15
by: Discovery.com Staff
Lesser flamingos (Phoenicopterus minor) in Kenya
Panoramic Images

Scientists from eleven institutions have released the first draft of the Open Tree of Life, an exhaustive project that traces the evolutionary relationships between all of the 2.3 million identified species of plants, animals, microbes and fungi on Earth.

An amalgamation and expansion of hundreds of smaller evolutionary trees, the open-source initiative is available for public viewing at http://tree.opentreeoflife.org.

"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," the research team explains in a news release.

The tree is far from complete; much of the evolutionary information required to finish the project is not yet available digitally. Researchers estimate that current digital evolutionary databases contain DNA for less than 5% of Earth's species.

Nonetheless, the completion of the project's first draft is a major milestone in the democratization of scientific data.

"Twenty five years ago people said this goal of huge trees was impossible," co-author Douglas Soltis, of the University of Florida, remarked. "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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