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Since the dawn of time, humans have sought to name and catalog the plants and animals around them. The adoption of a common taxonomic system from naturalist Carolus Linnaeus and Theory of Evolution from Charles Darwin continues to allow today’s biologists to place species in phylogenetic trees. These charts show how organisms evolved from a common ancestor into their myriad of current incarnations. The Open Tree of Life project hopes to gather all 1.8 million named species into one gigantic online open-source database, letting scientists across the world share their knowledge and construct a grand picture of diversity.

coral reef, ocean, fish, biodiversityImage via Flickr user Les Chatfield

The Open Tree of Life is a collaboration between biologists and software engineers who are working to create a global platform for researchers to add their data. For the past 50 or so years, scientists have built phylogenetic trees specific to their research interests and have lacked one central place to plot their information. To establish a comprehensive picture, the Open Tree of Life team are devising what they call the “Big Bang” tree as an initial rough draft that can afterwards be modified through open source software.

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Although tree-curation won’t start until later this year, scientists can upload their work into TreeBASE and Dryad systems which will be incorporated later. Once online, the Tree of Life will be able to generate a better understanding of the planet’s biodiversity, encourage the discovery of new species, let scientists and educators across disciplines communicate with one another, and help visualize the interactions between species within an ecosystem. Akin to the mapping of the human genome, the Tree of Life is an attempt to catalog the Earth’s incredible abundance of flora and fauna.

Contributors can keep track of the project’s progress by joining the organization’s mailing list, follow Twitter #opentree, and suggest their own branches through the official website. During a time in human history where species are disappearing at an alarming rate, the Open Tree of Life will become offer a crucial glimpse into the planet’s future by establishing where it has been in the past.

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