Crunching the Data for the Tree of Life
Michael Sanderson is worried. Dr. Sanderson, a biologist at the University of Arizona,is part of an effort to figure out how all the estimated 500,000species of plants are related to one another. For years now theresearchers have sequenced DNA from thousands of species from jungles,tundras and museum drawers. They have used supercomputers to crunch thegenetic data and have gleaned clues to how today?s diversity ofbaobobs, dandelions, mosses and other plants evolved over the past 450million years. The pace of their progress gives Dr. Sanderson hope thatthey will draw the entire evolutionary tree of plants within the nextfew years. ?It?s within striking distance,? Dr. Sanderson said.
There?s just one problem. ?We have no way to visualize such a treeat the moment,? he said. If they tried, they would end up with ablurry, inscrutable thicket. ?It would be ironic,? Dr. Sanderson said.?We?d be saying, ?We?ve built it, but we can?t show it to you.? ?
Ever since Charles Darwinfirst sketched a spindly sapling in 1837, biologists have relied onevolutionary trees to understand the history of life. Today biologistsdraw evolutionary trees to help them track the emergence of newdiseases, identify species at risk of extinction, and trace the historyof disease-related genes in the human genome. Within the next fewdecades, biologists may figure out how the millions of species on Earth are related to one another. But for people to actually see that tree of life, the tree itself will have to evolve.
Biologists have responded to the problem by enlisting the help ofcomputer scientists and software designers from companies like Googleand Adobe to find a new way of looking at evolution. Their goal is tocreate a program that allows scientists and nonscientists alike to flythrough evolutionary trees.