Tech by VICE

Scientists Unveil the Most Comprehensive Tree of Life Ever Created

Spanning 2.3 million species and 3.5 billion years.

by Becky Ferreira
Sep 21 2015, 10:30am

Image: Edward Russell/Flickr

Most people are interested in exploring their own ancestry, but a group of scientists based let by phylogeneticist Karen Cranston have taken it to a whole new level. In a recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Cranston and her colleagues charted out 3.5 billion years of our planet's evolutionary history in the most comprehensive "tree of life" ever created.

This "supertree" was compiled from about 500 previously published phylogenetic trees, and contains all named species—extinct or extant—which amounts to about 2.3 million unique entries.

The team named the project the Open Tree of Life, and made it available to the public at at
opentreeoflife.org. Word of warning—it's easy to get lost in the sheer breadth of the new tree's voluminous branches. Also, be prepared for slow loading times, because the site has already become a popular hub for taxonomy nerds around the world.

Image: opentreeoflife.org

Clearly, this new collection of data was painstakingly compiled and collated, but according to the researchers, it's still just a first draft. "This is the first real attempt to connect the dots and put it all together," said Cranston, who is based at Duke University, in a statement. "Think of it as Version 1.0."

The plan is to continually augment the project with new findings, and indeed, users can submit their own trees to the site for review. This will not only keep the tree relevant, it will provide a massive searchable database of phylogenetic information that can be applied to numerous different subfields.

"This comprehensive tree will fuel fundamental research on the nature of biological diversity, ultimately providing up-to-date phylogenies for downstream applications in comparative biology, ecology, conservation biology, climate change, agriculture, and genomics," the team wrote in the paper's abstract.

So if you are looking to take a deeper dive into your heritage than what's offered at Ancestry.com, you might want to climb through some of the branches on the Open Tree of Life. From dinosaurs to dinoflagellates, from blue whales to bluebirds, this new online resource for the phylogenetically inclined has it all.