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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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A Re-imagined Tree of Life

A Re-imagined 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 to global cultures and religious traditions. From the ancient Chinese, Egyptians, and Norse, to the Celts, Jews, Christians, and Buddhists, even the Aztecs and Mayans, all these 'trees' tell of 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 tree or gain longevity to those who eat its fruit. Traditional and modern forms can be simple or elaborate and they are often very beautiful considering their real or imagined inspiration.

 Mexico Tree of Life ca.500 CE (credit: Jordan Anderson)     Modern Celtic Tree of Life carved oak (credit: Knight Woodcraft)

The biological sciences of 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 evolutionary 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 ones being discovered every year. Arranging them in a correct representation has been another 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 study applied an efficient and automated process to combine existing 'trees' into a graphic evolutionary assemblage. Their digital version is readily updated as additional species are identified and genetic (DNA) data is derived. The data visualization and related open-source information is available to download and their complete publication is available here.

             New Tree of Life Visualization (credit: PNAS)

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

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