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Riled Up is a journal of science, the environment, exploration, new technology, and related commentary.  Contributors include scientists, explorers, engineers, and others who provide perspectives and context not typically offered in general news circulation.  For interested readers, additional resources are included.

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Re-imagining the Tree of Life

Re-imagining the Tree of Life

A Tree of Life from the Norse Sagas (credit: Wiki-commons)

In one form or another, a Tree of Life has been a vital symbol for representing cultures and religious traditions worldwide. From the ancient Chinese, Egyptians, the Norse, to the Celts, Jews, Christians, and Buddhists, even the Aztecs and Mayans, all of these different peoples used 'trees' tell an origin story.
It can represent a life source; a physical or symbolic form that connects everything; a future of regeneration or rebirth; or the life and death biological cycle itself. Common features often include supernatural guardians who protect the trees or to acquire longevity when the fruit is eaten. Traditional and modern forms can be simple or elaborate and are often very beautiful considering whatever their real or imagined inspirations.

 Mexico Tree of Life ca. 500 CE (credit: Jordan Anderson)         Contemporary Tree of Life, Ireland (credit: Knight Woodcraft)

The biological sciences including evolution, speciation, and genetics are no exception to creating a 'tree of life' but they are complicated. Compiling all living organisms and correctly illustrating their known relationships has been like searching for the Holy Grail. It is a daunting task when there are more than two million species currently known and new species being identifying every year. Arranging them in a correct representation has been a gigantic challenge.

Investigators at the University of Michigan and colleagues elsewhere have published a new version in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Their studies applied an efficient and automated process to combine existing 'trees' into a graphic evolutionary assemblage. The online version is readily updated as new species are identified and genetic (DNA) data becomes available for digital comparison to the database. The data visualization and related open-source information is available to download and the complete publication is available here.

             New Tree of Life Visualization (credit: PNAS)

A video explains the utility of this new biological 'tree of life' construct. It is a fitting companion to traditional depictions. Where do you see yourself fitting on this tree? WHB

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