Massive “Tree of Life” connects 2.3 million organisms


Scientists from across the world have gathered together to create the first ever, incredibly comprehensive, digital map of all known life.

Called the Tree of Life, it shows how 2.3 million species of animals, plants, fungi, and microbes branched off over the years from a common ancestor.

Researchers from eleven organizations worked together to create the genetic map of all life on Earth, traced over 3.5 billion years of shared history, and it is open to all to use.


Smaller ‘trees’ have been produced over the years that illustrate various subsets of life, but the authors of this new report say this is the first time anyone has compiled that previous data into a single map.

The researchers wrote that “The Open Tree Taxonomy,” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), is the first to aggregate tens of thousands previous maps to create one comprehensive image of the history of life as we know it.

Many scientists believe that all life on Earth shares a common genetic ancestor, understanding how millions of species are related helps them improve agricultural methods and better understand viruses, the research team says.

“There’s a pretty big gap between the sum of what scientists know about how living things are related, and what’s actually available digitally,” lead scientist Karen Cranston, a computational phylogeneticist at Duke University, said in an announcement of the project.

“This is the first real attempt to connect the dots and put it all together,” said Dr. Cranston. “Think of it as version 1.0.”

Just as life continues to grow and evolve, so to will this mapping project. The research team wrote in the paper that the next step will involve having other biologists contribute even more trees, so that existing data can be revised – similar to the way that Wikipedia and other crowd-sourced information outlets work.

“Twenty five years ago people said this goal of huge trees was impossible,” said Douglas Soltis, a genetics professor at the University of Florida. “The open tree of life is an important starting point that other investigators can now refine and improve for decades to come.”

Building the computer code and compiling the data took three years, and involved collaborators from Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, the Web development firm Interrobang, the University of Michigan, the University of Florida, Duke University, and George Washington University.

“Many participants on the project contributed hundreds of hours tracking down and cleaning up thousands of trees from the literature, then selecting 484 of them that were used to generate the draft tree of life,” said Cody Hinchliff, a scientist from the University of Idaho, in the announcement.

The team had to develop its own software and data algorithms to make it possible to combine such large numbers of trees.

“The goal of reconstructing the tree of life is one of the most daunting challenges in biology,” the research team wrote in its paper.

There are about 1.8 million named species, most of which we don’t know anything about, because scientists haven’t yet collected enough data.

Currently, the map includes only those species which have been genetically mapped, which scientists estimate is only 22 percent or so of known species on the planet. That leaves a chasm of work to be done simply to map the relationships between known species, let alone those still undiscovered.



The current version of the tree – along with the underlying data and source code – is available here:


Photo Credit: eric lynch from Flickr.