International collaboration of researchers releases "tree of life" for 2.3 million species

The new tree represents the most comprehensive visualization of its kind, drawing together many smaller studies into a more unified and free to access resource(Credit: Stephen Smith)

The largest "tree of life" ever created has been released, spanning 3.5 billion years and 2.3 million species. The work was not carried out from scratch, as such an effort would consume a vast amount of man-hours. Instead the researchers compiled data from almost 500 existing smaller trees displaying the divergence and evolution of life as we understand it.

Duke University, one of the US institutions involved in the project, describes the tree as a "Wikipedia" for such evolutionary maps. Though researchers involved in the project are keen to underline that the work is far from finished owing to the fragmented nature of the data that the researchers were laboring to compile. A study of research pertaining to life trees carried out 2000 – 2012 revealed that only one in six instances of the work are deposited in an easy to access digital format.

This leaves significant gaps in the work, and in some places the shortcomings have resulted in data that either doesn't gel with expert opinion, as is the case with sunflower families, or, as with microbes, is missing altogether. The researchers hope that future iterations of the tree will feature fewer blind spots thanks to software which is currently under development that will allow future researchers to log in to the tree and update it with their study.

Beyond being an incredible representation of our planet's complex and beautiful ecosystem, having so unified a tree could have significant and far reaching practical applications. For example tracing the inter-species spread of infectious diseases and increasing crop yields.

The resource is available free online on the Open Tree of Life website.

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