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NSF Doles Out $17 Million for Tree of Life Project

NEW YORK, Nov. 25 - The National Science Foundation has doled out around $17 million among more than 25 institutes, including the Institute for Genomic Research, to help it map the so-called Tree of Life.


According to the NSF, researchers will study the origins of land plants from algae; seek to understand a "diverse group" of the spiders; investigate fungi and parasitic roundworms; and correlate the relationships of birds and dinosaurs.


The grants for the Assembling the Tree of Life, as the project is known, will support "large multi-investigator, multi-institutional, international teams of scientists who can combine expertise and data sources, from paleontology to morphology, developmental biology, and molecular biology, the NSF said.


The awards will also help develop software to help improve visualization and analysis of extremely large data sets, and "outreach and education programs" in comparative phylogenetic biology and paleontology, the NSF said.


"The conceptual, computational and technological tools are available to rapidly resolve most, if not all, major branches of the tree of life." said Quentin Wheeler, director of NSF's division of environmental biology, which funded the awards.


Scientists believe that the 1.75 million known species represents just  10 percent of the total species on Earth, and that many of them "will disappear" in the decades ahead, the NSF said last week. "Learning about these species and their evolutionary history is epic in its scope, spanning all the life forms of an entire planet over its several billion year history," added Wheeler.


For example, scientists at TIGR, whom the NSF awarded $2.5 million, will sequence the complete genomes of "representative strains" of eight bacterial phyla. According to TIGR, each phylum--Chrysiogenetes, Deferribacteres, Dictyoglomus, Nitrospira, Coprothermobacter, Synergistes, Thermodesulfobacteria, and Thermomicrobium--represents a "major branch" in the Tree of Life, and have not yet been explored using whole genome sequencing.


"A more complete representation of bacterial genomic diversity will provide a clearer picture of evolutionary relationships within the bacteria, and how specific characteristics evolved--such as photosynthesis, the ability to live at high temperatures, or the ability to live without oxygen," said Naomi Ward, one of TIGR's lead researchers in the project.


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