Modern taxonomy often depicts the evolutionary relationships between organisms as a tree. In such a “tree of life” the trunk represents the ancestral organisms of all species in the tree. Branches indicate where groups of organisms separated from each other in the course of their evolution. In a complete taxonomic tree, the smaller, terminal branches would represent individual species. By examining a well-constructed phylogenetic tree, the evolutionary history of organisms can be traced and the relatedness of different organisms can be inferred.

     Based on our current knowledge, our real Tree of Life still has plenty of bare spots. That's because, as yet, only a modest proportion of the living things on Earth have been carefully studied, described, and classified. Will we ever reach a point where the tree is complete, and a full range of anatomical, ecological and genetic information is available for each and every species?

Picture of Terry Yates     That's the goal of the “Assembling the Tree of Life” (ATOL) project, sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Dr. Terry Yates, a Professor of Biology at the University of New Mexico (UNM), has played a key role in moving this project from the drawing board and into the laboratories of researchers across the nation. The ATOL project provides large grants to multidisciplinary groups studying different aspects of organismal relationships.

     Dr. Yates, who is also Vice Provost for Research at UNM, conceived of the ATOL funding project while serving as a program officer at the NSF in Washington, DC. According to Yates, “we now, for the first time, have the technology in terms of information technology and genomics that make it possible to attempt the assembly of the universal tree of life from microbes to mammals.”

     Classifying all of life is no small endeavor. The ATOL project takes its place as one of the farthest reaching projects in the history of modern biology. Yates suspects that it will take at least 20 years to complete, and that it will involve hundreds of scientists working in fields that span the gamut from molecular biology to software engineering.

     The payoff, however, is equally impressive. Once the project is complete, scientists will be able to access information on any species and make comparisons between any organisms of interest. The implications for biological disciplines as different as immunology and ecology are staggering. Indeed, Yates puts it well when he says the ATOL project “will do for biology what the periodic table did for chemistry.”

     Also see: Watanabe, M. 2002. Describing the "Tree of Life": Attainable goal or stuff of dreams? BioScience 52(10):875-880.


Oct. 13, 2003

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