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NSF Awards $13M to Advance the 'Tree of Life'

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The National Science Foundation has awarded $13 million to new projects to develop tools to enable researchers to better see and study the evolutionary relationships between all life on earth.

The funding to the NSF Assembling, Visualizing, and Analyzing the Tree of Life program, or AVAToL, will support three efforts to develop computational tools that scientists will use to study links and connections between millions of organisms, NSF said Monday.

The program aims to create an open and dynamic evolutionary framework that can be updated and refined as new biodiversity data arrives from researchers around the world, who will be able to access evolutionary trees, update them, add new species, and fill in missing biological branches.

Creating an all-encompassing tree of life is a daunting task, NSF said, because new data from DNA sequencing and evolutionary analysis, as well as fossil studies, have created thousands of small, disconnected evolutionary trees. Only a "tiny fraction of all evolutionary trees have been published," and only around four percent make it into digital database form, NSF said. Most of that information is locked in journal articles or in file formats that are difficult to download and analyze.

Stitching all of these branches together, including animals, plants, fungi, and microbes, will require more powerful computational tools for analyzing large data sets, for combining diverse types of data, and for connecting large amounts of information into one resource.

One of these projects, a grant to Duke University Bioinformatics Project Coordinator Karen Cranston, will be used to produce an online, comprehensive first draft of all 1.8 million named species. Called the Open Tree of Life, this resource will include tools enabling researchers to update and revise the tree as new data comes in.

Another effort, led by University of Idaho Assistant Professor Luke Harmon, will develop a way to visually portray evolutionary data so scientists can see how organisms are related, and will create software to enable scientists to visualize and analyze data across the tree of life.

Associate Professor Maureen O'Leary, of Stony Brook University, will lead an effort to develop methods to enable rapid and automated studies of species' phenotypes across the tree of life. The team plans to develop large phenotypic datasets using methods that involve computer vision and imaging analysis, machine learning, and natural language processing. Such a phenotypic data resource will make it possible to reconstruct the evolutionary histories of fossil species.