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This circular view of the comprehensive tree of life doesn’t include all the tips, just branches that have at least 500 species associated with them.

This circular view of the comprehensive tree of life doesn’t include all the tips, just branches that have at least 500 species associated with them.

First comprehensive tree of life shows how related you are to millions of species

Want to know how related you are to a wombat? Or an amoeba? Now you can, thanks to the newly released Open Tree of Life, which knits together more than 500 family trees of various groups of organisms to create a supertree with 2.3 million species.

Researchers have already begun to put these new data to work toward a better understanding of life on Earth. “Everything we study in biology can be pinned somewhere on the tree of life,” says James Rosindell, a computational biologist at Imperial College, London, who was not involved with the database. “It’s highly significant that scientists have finally produced a complete tree.”

Over the past 3 years, about 35 people from 11 U.S. labs have spent about 100,000 hours scouring the scientific literature for family trees. They had to resolve naming issues—sometimes a species would have multiple names, and at one point a spiny anteater shared the same moniker with a moray eel, confusing the computers. “There is no single database of accepted names, so the group had to come up with one,” says co-author Douglas Soltis, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Florida, Gainesville.

He and his colleagues expected that knitting together these different family trees—which often disagreed—would be the hard part. But what stumped them the most was the dearth of digitized data. Of 7500 trees published between 2000 and 2012, only one in six were computerized. Ultimately, the team used about 500 smaller trees to build one large one, says Karen Cranston, an evolutionary biologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who helped coordinate the effort. With this relatively small sample size, the draft tree, released online this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “does not summarize what we know,” Cranston says.

But the tree’s website includes links to the original studies examined that offer alternate views, she adds. Furthermore, the site is built to accept feedback and incorporate new data that will eventually be used to update the tree. “We hope the tree looks much different a year from now,” Cranston adds.

Meanwhile, Rosindell and Yan Wong, an evolutionary biologist at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, have adapted a computer tool they’ve been developing to help people “see” the tree. Called OneZoom, the project works like Google Maps in that a user can drill down the tree’s trunks, branches, and tips to see ever finer details. In this video, OneZoom starts out with an overview of the tree, then zooms in on successively more detailed branches that lead first to animals, then to placental bearing mammals, and finally to humans. For this tree, Wong used not only the Open Tree data, but also data from other studies he identified as important.

“It’s one cool visualization,” says Open Tree of Life coordinator and evolutionary biologist Stephen Smith from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He hopes there will be many more adaptations of the data. If you could combine it with other data, for example, “you can make your own tree of life.”