By: Rhodi Lee
Scientists have released the first draft of the "tree of life" for about 2.3 million named species of plants, animals, microbes and fungi on the planet.
A collaborative effort of researchers from eleven institutions, the tree provides more details about the relationship between species and about evolution as living things diverge from one another over time.
The tree, which was described in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Sept. 18, traces back to the beginning of life on our planet over 3.5 billion years ago.
"With bigger and more resolved trees we can answer evolutionary questions on scales not previously possible," the Open Tree of Life blog reads. "Sparse lineage sampling and hence unaccounted for diversity has previously been a hindrance when analyzing evolutionary trends that span the tree of life, but the time is approaching (or might be here already!) where the size of the phylogenies will not be the limiting factor in studying broad scale evolutionary questions."
Evolutionary trees are not just meant to determine how animals are closely related to other species. Knowing how the different species on Earth are related to each other can help scientists increase livestock and crop yields, discover new drugs, and trace the origin and transmission of infectious diseases including those that remain incurable such as HIV and Ebola.
"The tree provides a compelling starting point for community contribution," the researchers wrote. "This comprehensive tree will fuel fundamental research on the nature of biological diversity, ultimately providing up-to-date phylogenies for downstream applications in comparative biology, ecology, conservation biology, climate change, agriculture, and genomics."
Thousands of trees have already been published earlier for select branches of the tree of life. Some of these maps even contain more than 100,000 species. The new tree of life though is the first time that researchers used these earlier trees and combined them into a single tree that covers all life.