Scientists from across the world have gathered together to create the first ever, incredibly comprehensive, digital map of all known life. Called the Tree of Life, it shows how 2.3 million species of animals, plants, fungi, and microbes branched off over the years from a common ancestor. Researchers from 11 organizations worked together to create the genetic map of all life on Earth, traced over 3.5 billion years of shared history, and it is open to all to use.
Smaller ‘trees’ have been produced over the years that illustrate various subsets of life, but the authors of this new report say this is the first time anyone has compiled that previous data into a single map. The researchers wrote that “The Open Tree Taxonomy,” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first to aggregate tens of thousands previous maps to create one comprehensive image of the history of life as we know it.
“This is the first real attempt to connect the dots and put it all together,” said Dr. Karen Cranston, a computational phylogeneticist at Duke University and lead scientist on the project. “Think of it as version 1.0.”
Just as life continues to grow and evolve, so to will this mapping project. The research team wrote in the paper that the next step will involve having other biologists contribute even more trees, so that existing data can be revised – similar to the way that Wikipedia and other crowd-sourced information outlets work. Currently, the map includes only those species which have been genetically mapped, which scientists estimate is only 22 percent or so of known species on the planet. That leaves a chasm of work to be done simply to map the relationships between known species, let alone those still undiscovered.
Images via OpenTreeofLife.org and Wikipedia