Darwin_s Tree of Life - February 10, 2009 Crunching the...

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February 10, 2009 Crunching the Data for the Tree of Life By CARL ZIMMER Michael Sanderson is worried. Dr. Sanderson, a biologist at the University of Arizona, is part of an effort to figure out how all the estimated 500,000 species of plants are related to one another. For years now the researchers have sequenced DNA from thousands of species from jungles, tundras and museum drawers. They have used supercomputers to crunch the genetic data and have gleaned clues to how today’s diversity of baobabs, dandelions, mosses and other plants evolved over the past 450 million years. The pace of their progress gives Dr. Sanderson hope that they will draw the entire evolutionary tree of plants within the next few years. “It’s within striking distance,” Dr. Sanderson said. There’s just one problem. “We have no way to visualize such a tree at the moment,” he said. If they tried, they would end up with a blurry, inscrutable thicket. “It would be ironic,” Dr. Sanderson said. “We’d be saying, ‘We’ve built it, but we can’t show it to you.’ ” Ever since Charles Darwin first sketched a spindly sapling in 1837, biologists have relied on evolutionary trees to understand the history of life. Today biologists draw evolutionary trees to help them track the emergence of new diseases, identify species at risk of extinction, and trace the history of disease-related genes in the human genome. Within the next few decades, biologists may figure out how the millions of species on Earth are related to one another. But for people to actually see that tree of life, the tree itself will have to evolve. Biologists have responded to the problem by enlisting the help of computer scientists and software designers from companies like Google and Adobe to find a new way of looking at evolution. Their goal is to create a program that allows scientists and nonscientists alike to fly through evolutionary trees. “Just like Google Earth changed the way people look at geography, a sophisticated tree of life browser could really change the way we look at the life around us,” said Mark W. Westneat, the director of the Biodiversity Synthesis Center at the Field Museum in Chicago. Darwin drew the first evolutionary tree when he was 28. He had recently returned to England from his five-year voyage around the world aboard the Beagle, and his theory of evolution was still in an embryonic state. It occurred to him that evolution could explain the similarities and differences between species. The descendants of an ancestral species might have evolved into different forms, splitting into separate lineages “like the branching of a great tree from a single stem,” as he would later write in “On the Origin of Species.”
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Darwin’s first tree is now a familiar sight in books, museum exhibits and, of course, Wikipedia. But David Kohn, the director of the Darwin Digital Library at the American Museum of Natural History, has recently discovered 10 other trees that Darwin drew in
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Darwin_s Tree of Life - February 10, 2009 Crunching the...

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