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Last Update: 31-10-2012  
Related category(ies):
Pure sciences

 

Countries involved in the project described in the article:
United Kingdom  |  United States
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The tree of life goes digital

Researchers in the United Kingdom and the United States have developed a new interactive website that allows users to explore the evolutionary tree of life. Called OneZoom™, the site went live on 16 October. This latest development is important because it gives the public a means to look at how life on Earth began, moving on to various points that unlock the mysteries of life categories by using mapping software. The work was presented in the journal PLoS Biology.

The zooming concept of OneZoom™ demonstrated with a tree of 5 020 mammal species. The colours of the leaves in this visualisation indicate the degree to which that species is at risk from extinction according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. © Imperial College London
The zooming concept of OneZoom™ demonstrated with a tree of 5 020 mammal species. The colours of the leaves in this visualisation indicate the degree to which that species is at risk from extinction according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.
©  Imperial College London

Biologists have been on a quest to draw a tree showing the details of living organisms and the relation between them. The OneZoom™ interactive website offers them a way in which they do not have to deal with copious amounts of paper or computer screens.

OneZoom™ was the brainchild of Dr James Rosindell from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial College London in the United Kingdom, in cooperation with Dr Luke Harmon from the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Idaho in the United States. 'OneZoom gives you a natural way to explore large amounts of complex information like the tree of life,' said Dr Rosindell. 'It's intuitive because it's similar to the way we explore the real world; by moving towards interesting objects to see them in more detail.'

The conventional sense of examining the tree of life was to start with a thick trunk that represents the first life on Earth. The branches that extend from the trunk are the different categories of life, including animals and plants. The smaller branches are for mammals, birds, fish and insects. So there is only so much information this conventional Tree of Life can contain. The digital world proved to contain the answer Dr Rosindell was seeking.

'We're still looking at data on the screen in ways that can easily be printed on paper and that's a serious visual constraint,' Dr Rosindell said. 'In fact it's no longer necessary to restrict ourselves in this way because we now mostly view the information on a screen only. OneZoom embraces this by laying out the data in an exciting, interactive way that could not be captured on printed sheets.'

While OneZoom™ has tree-like proportions, users can zoom in and out easily, and examine the various links between the organisms. This innovative tool allows users to get more details for each organism they want to know about. The information contained for each organism includes the degree to which it is threatened with extinction. Photographs will soon be added as well.

For now, the site provides the tree of mammals, with information for more than 5 000 species. Dr Rosindell plans to finalise the next stages of the project in the coming years.

'After decades of study, scientists are probably only a year away from having a first draft of the complete tree of life. It would be a great shame if having built it we had no way to visualise it,' said Dr Rosindell.

The researchers believe scientists could use OneZoom™ to identify new patterns in nature and to inform the public about evolution and diversity of life.

Commenting on the website, Professor Joel Cracraft, curator in charge of birds at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, United States said: 'This will revolutionise how we teach and understand the Tree of Life. It is an invaluable tool for communicating the grand scope of life's history to children as well as adults.'


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OneZoom™
Imperial College London
PLOS Biology





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