Scientists have been building evolutionary trees for more than 150 years, ever since Charles Darwin drew the first sketches in his notebook. But despite significant progress in fleshing out the major branches of the tree of life, today there is still no central place where researchers can go to browse and download the entire tree.
"Where can you go to see their collective results in one resource? The surprising thing is you can't at least not yet," said Dr. Karen Cranston of the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center.
But now, thanks to a three-year, $5.76 million grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation, a team of scientists and developers from ten universities aims to make that a reality.
Figuring out how the millions of species on Earth are related to one another isn't just important for pinpointing an aardvark's closest cousins, or determining if hagfish are more closely related to sand dollars or sea squirts. Information about evolutionary relationships has helped scientists identify promising new medicines, develop hardier, higher-yielding crops, and fight infectious diseases such as HIV, anthrax and influenza.