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NSF Grant Helps Professor Connect Evolutionary Dots along the Open Tree of Life

September 18, 2018
Professor Emily Jane McTavish

UC Merced life and environmental sciences Professor Emily Jane McTavish and a collaborator at the University of Kansas recently received a $1.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to extend and improve the Open Tree of Life (OpenTree).

OpenTree is a collaborative project that brings together evolutionary biologists and taxonomy experts in an effort to build an accurate, comprehensive evolutionary tree that describes how every named species on Earth is related to every other. It works on a wiki-like model, allowing users to manually upload data to update the evolutionary relationships represented in the tree.

As new understanding of relationships emerges, users can add that information the tree of life to ensure that it reflects the most current understanding of evolutionary relationships between species, McTavish explained.

With 2.5 million species now represented in the Open Tree of Life — and new data constantly streaming in thanks to advances in genome sequencing — McTavish, a biologist with the School of Natural Sciences, and her collaborator, Professor Mark Holder, are writing software that automatically updates the OpenTree as data emerges.

Automating adding relationships into OpenTree will help the tree’s branches better reflect the most up-to-date understanding of evolutionary relationships between species, allowing users to see, for example, how closely related the American crocodile (C. acutus) is to its feathered cousin, G. gallus — the chicken.

When disagreements between taxonomists arise, automatic updates to the tree will allow users to follow those real-time conflicts. McTavish will also update the tree to better reflect the evolutionary time that separates related species.

The biggest challenge now is convincing people to share data. To make the process easier, McTavish and her colleagues will include a software update that allows scientists to safely share information under embargo until it’s officially published. That will protect intellectual property and allow data to be incorporated into the tree as soon as it is publicly available.

“The currency we’re working in is data, but it’s not easy to get others to share data,” McTavish said. “We’re trying to encourage people to share their data without incurring any risk.”