"Tree of Life" of all known living organisms takes root

No, this isn't a new version of one of the Lion King's most iconic themes. More a mathematical, scientific tree than a metaphor, this "Open Tree of Life" is an attempt by researchers to see the forest for the trees, to draw the relationships between organisms that exist today, tracing back their common origins through the history of evolution. The tree, which is more technically the aggregation of hundreds of smaller trees, is the first time an attempt to document the almost 2.3 million known species on Earth has been made in such a magnitude.

The scientific world is no stranger to the creation of such trees, but almost all previous attempts has been done on specific branches of the overall tree of life. Those aren't small by any means, sometimes including more than 100,000 species. But that is just a fraction of all creatures here on earth, at least the ones we know about. Compiling all these together into one comprehensive reference is an ambitious undertaking that reflects the size of the subject matter itself.

That is why the Open Tree of Life is doing things somewhat differently. It is taking the open process that made Wikipedia popular and applying it to the project. Anyone can edit to add to the growing body of knowledge. Fortunately, it also means that anyone can use that treasury as well.

Like any tree, the Tree of Life is starting out as a bud, encompassing so for 500 smaller trees from previously published studies. And almost like a real tree, growth isn't happening in hyper speed. The most grueling part of the endeavor is in trying to actually transform those trees into a digital format that can be put online. The researchers found, most likely much to their dismay and groaning, that only one out of six studies in 100 journals published between 2000 and 2012 had their data available in a digital format that can be easily added to the tree. While some do deliver PDF versions of their data, these aren't easily extracted.

Still, this is just the first draft of the Tree of Life. Version 1.0. The sprout. Much work lies ahead but hopefully the open nature of the project will encourage many to chip in to make the Tree, not Circle, of Life bloom.

VIA: EurekaAlert!