A "tree of life", which depicts the relationships of 2.3 million named species on Earth, has been created by biologists.
Duke University's Karen Cranston, principal investigator on the project, said: “This is the first real attempt to connect the dots and put it all together. Think of it as Version 1.0.”
Researchers from eleven institutions worked on the "supertree". They knitted together data from nearly 500 smaller trees from previously published studies to form their rough draft, which brings together all named species of animals, plants, fungi and microbes.
The boffins have made the data and source code of the current version of the tree of life available online and they are encouraging anyone to use and edit it.
Duke University explained the purpose of the project:
Evolutionary trees, branching diagrams that often look like a cross between a candelabra and a subway map, aren’t just for figuring out whether aardvarks are more closely related to moles or manatees, or pinpointing a slime mold’s closest cousins.
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.
But biologists on the project face other challenges, too.
According to a survey of more than 7,500 phylogenetic research papers published between 2000 and 2012, only one out of six studies came with a digital, downloadable format of the data.
“There’s a pretty big gap between the sum of what scientists know about how living things are related, and what’s actually available digitally,” said Cranston.
Many of the evolutionary trees that have been published are only available as PDFs and other image files that can't be entered into a database or merged with other trees. ®