At the American Museum of Natural History in New York last month, it was a time for all animals to have their moment in the spotlight. And, with less fanfare, it was a time to recognize the impact genomics has had in nontraditional sports like phylogeny.
The three-day conference, “Assembling the Tree of Life: Science, Relevance, and Challenges,” featured some three dozen speakers discussing the relationships between almost every imaginable organism.
Ward Wheeler, curator of invertebrates at the museum, addressed his favorite group, the arthropods — noting that the museum’s in-house sequencing capacity of “quite easily” 250 megabases per year had enabled much more rapid and presumably more precise phylogenetic tree development. He pointed out that one of the more noteworthy results of the many iterations of trees he had run was the addition of extinct species to the tree. To a group of more than 100 living organisms, he added just seven extinct taxa — “with 90 or 95 percent of the data missing” due to the relatively little that can be gleaned from a fossil — and significantly rearranged the tree of relationships. “It still creates a conflict and changes the result. That conflict is informative,” he told an audience of about 300.
NSF director Rita Colwell also mentioned the importance of genomics to establishing phylogenetic trees in her plenary address. “In the era of genomics, people are starting to look at divergent organisms and [make connections] we never would’ve imagined,” she said. These relationships, determined largely by sequencing, “can help determine the origin of a pathogen” — which is, she added, “proving very important in tracking down the [anthrax] strain used” in last October’s mailings. This kind of sequencing is also being used to keep track of the four closely related viruses implicated in spreading dengue fever.
Colwell also sketched out a pie-in-the-sky idea for keeping tabs on an entire “biosphere” — all the organisms in an environment. In her example, the use of DNA microarrays would play a key role, she said.
“Advances in supercomputing, computational biology, and proteomics have literally revolutionized the way we see the tree of life,” she said — and will continue to be critical as more and more of the planet’s 10 million to 100 million species are identified, studied, and added to the tree.
— Meredith Salisbury