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Scientists Create the First Digital Tree of Life

Digital Tree

Story at-a-glance -

  • Researchers from 11 institutions collaborated to draft the first digital “tree of life”
  • The tree includes 2.3 million species of animals, plants, fungi, and microbes, and attempts to show how these organisms evolved from single cells into creatures as complex as human beings
  • The tree is available in digital format with open access and in editable form, which means anyone can view it, edit it, or add to it

By Dr. Mercola

The tree of life is both a spiritual and biological emblem that symbolizes the interconnection of life on our planet. It’s meant to provide an illustration of the common beginnings of life from an evolutionary perspective, but this has been more of a metaphor… until now.

Researchers from 11 institutions, including Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History, the University of Michigan, Duke University, and George Washington University, collaborated to draft the first digital “tree of life.”

Lead investigator Karen Cranston of Duke University said to “think of it as Version 1.0.”1 The tree includes 2.3 million species of animals, plants, fungi, and microbes, and attempts to show how these organisms evolved from single cells into creatures as complex as human beings.

Tens of thousands of smaller trees have already been created, and now such trees serve as “branches” on the larger tree of life. Many of the trees were not available in digital format, which is what makes the new project so monumental – it’s available in digital format with open access and in editable form, which means anyone can view it, edit it or add to it. Treehugger reported:2

By making this data readily accessible and editable, it is hoped that this work will help researchers to ‘fill in the gaps’ between what we know and what we don't know, and to clarify and resolve conflicts in certain branches of phylogeny [the evolutionary history of an organism].

It will also serve as a starting point for adding new species as they are discovered and named.”

A First Step to Understanding How Millions of Species Are Related

Many scientists believe life on Earth stems from one common genetic ancestor, but as Dr. Cranston noted:

"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."3

Most existing evolutionary branching trees are in PDF or image formats that cannot be merged with other information. The new tree of life includes 484 trees that have been combined as the “first real attempt to connect the dots and put it all together,” Dr. Cranston said.

The team is now hoping other biologists will contribute trees and revise information as necessary, similar to how people contribute to Wikipedia.

Just building the computer code and compiling data for the digital tree took three years, and one of the biggest challenges the researchers faced was accounting for the many name changes and discrepancies among species. For instance, the Eastern red bat may be listed under two different scientific names.4

Most of the Tree of Life Is Yet to Be Discovered

The tree, although a major undertaking in its own right, represents only the beginning of the mapping project. To date, only 22 percent of known species have been genetically mapped (and only a fraction of the species on Earth have even been discovered).

As a result, there remain large gaps between certain branches of the tree, and sections related to insects and microbes “remain elusive,” according to Duke University.5

Still, as the tree of life gets increasingly filled in over the coming years and decades, it could serve as a comprehensive map of life from which scientists may yield countless new discoveries. Duke University explained:6

“Evolutionary trees, branching diagrams that often look like a cross between a candelabra and a subway map, aren’t just for figuring out whether aardvarks are more closely related to moles or manatees, or pinpointing a slime mold’s closest cousins.

Understanding how the millions of species on Earth are related to one another helps scientists discover new drugs, increase crop and livestock yields, and trace the origins and spread of infectious diseases such as HIV, Ebola, and influenza.”

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What the Human Genome Project Revealed About Human Health…

One example of how mapping projects can lead to groundbreaking discoveries can be gleaned from the Human Genome Project (HGP). The mission of the Human Genome Project, which was launched in 1990 and completed in 2003, was to map out all human genes and their interactions, which would than serve as the basis for curing virtually any disease.

Alas, not only did they realize the human body consists of far fewer genes than previously believed, they also discovered that these genes do not operate as previously predicted.

Much to everyone's surprise, the HGP discovered genetics are only responsible for about 10 percent of human disease.7 The remaining 90 percent are induced by environmental factors, be they nutrients, toxins, or thoughts and emotions.

In more recent years, we've come to realize that your microbiome is one of the environmental factors that drive genetic expression, turning genes on and off depending on which microbes are present.

Your body's microbiome — colonies of various microbes that reside in your gut and elsewhere in and on your body — is as unique to you as your fingerprint, and can be rapidly altered based on factors such as diet, lifestyle, and exposure to toxins and antibiotics.

The Human Microbiome Project Is Uncovering Priceless Data About Our Microbial Communities

Today, the US National Institute of Health’s Human Microbiome Project (HMP) is also underway to “characterize microbial communities found at multiple human body sites and to look for correlations between changes in the microbiome and human health.”

So far, this data gathering has resulted in nearly 200 scientific papers, along with a repository of resources that scientists can access to explore the relationships between human gut bacteria and disease.

The American Gut Project decided to take it a step further by allowing the American public to participate. (I published an invitation to join the project in 2012. Hopefully, some of you decided to join, as I did. If you didn’t, you can still sign up to participate on the Human Food Project’s website.8)

All the gathered information from this project will be made public, similar to the data from the tree of life. It’s an extremely ambitious project seeking to identify the parameters for the ideal gut flora and how diet affects it. According to the American Gut Project:9

“One of the big questions the American Gut scientists hope to figure out is what characterizes healthy and sick guts (or even just healthier and sicker guts) and how one might move from the latter to the former…

Even just beginning to know how many and which species live in our guts will be exciting, particularly since most of these species have never been studied, which is to say there are almost certainly new species inside you, though until you sample yourself… we won't know which ones.”

Getting back to the tree of life project, it, too, has been described as “one of the most daunting challenges in biology.” If you are a biologist with data to contribute, or you’re simply curious about what the first digital tree of life looks like, it’s open to the public and free to view at