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Tree of Life Project Aims for Every Twig and Leaf

from the New York Times (Registration Required)

In 1837, Charles Darwin opened a notebook and drew a simple tree with a few branches. Each branch, which he labeled with a letter, represented a species. In that doodle, he captured his newfound realization that species were related, having evolved from a common ancestor. Across the top of the page he wrote, "I think."

Two decades later Darwin presented a detailed account of the tree of life in "On the Origin of Species." And much of evolutionary biology since then has been dedicated to illuminating parts of the tree. Using DNA, fossils and other clues, scientists have been able to work out the relationships of many groups of organisms, making rough sketches of the entire tree of life. "Animals and fungi are in one part of the tree, and plants are far away in another part," said Laura A. Katz, an evolutionary biologist at Smith College.

Now Dr. Katz and a number of other colleagues are doing something new. They are drawing a tree of life that includes every known species. A tree, in other words, with about two million branches. "I think it is an amazing step forward for our community if it can be pulled off," said Robert P. Guralnick, an expert on evolutionary trees at the University of Colorado who is not part of the project.

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