On the U-M Gateway: Smith plays key role in effort to create first comprehensive tree of life
Tuesday, May 22, 2012
Since Darwin, assembling an evolutionary tree that shows the relationships between all known species of life has been one of the grandest and most daunting challenges facing biologists.
Despite 150 years of effort, there's still no comprehensive tree of life, no single diagram that displays the links between all of the 1.8 million or so named species of animals, plants and microorganisms.
Now, with $5.76 million from the U.S. National Science Foundation, a group of scientists from across the country will attempt to complete the first rough draft of the entire tree of life in the first year of a three-year project called the Open Tree of Life.
This tree is expected to be a powerful tool that will enable scientists to interpret the patterns and processes of evolution and to predict the responses of life to rapid environmental change. NSF announced the award of first-year funding for the project last week.
The Open Tree of Life project is led by Karen Cranston of Duke University and has several sub-groups. University of Michigan computational evolutionary biologist Stephen Smith heads the group that will tackle the nitty-gritty details of piecing together all the existing branches, stems and twigs of life's tree into a single diagram.
Smith joined the U-M faculty in January as an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, his first university faculty position.
"This is a very complicated beast, and I'm really looking forward to the challenge," Smith said of the draft tree. "I really like taking on a problem that somebody, at some point, in a room that I've been sitting in, has said is not possible to do. And this is one of those instances."
The new information is expected to help enhance agriculture, identify and combat diseases (of humans and crops), conserve biodiversity, and predict responses to global climate change and to biological invasions.
Smith's lab will receive about $900,000 over the next three years for the tree project. He plans to hire two postdoctoral researchers and will include several graduate students.
"This is similar to when astronauts went to the moon and looked back at the Earth for the first time," Smith said. "It will be our first opportunity to see all of the organisms that we know on Earth. This is our moon shot."
Caption: This evolutionary tree shows the relationships between more than 33,000 species of flowering plants. Trees like this will be pieced together to form an evolutionary tree of all named species of animals, plants and microorganisms as part of the Open Tree of Life project. Image credit: Stephen Smith
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