By Tara Roberts
University of Idaho scientists are contributing to worldwide efforts to better understand the Earth’s plant and animal species and their complex evolutionary relationships.
Luke Harmon, an associate professor of biological sciences, is leading an effort to create software that can help researchers access and analyze the massive amounts of data about the tree of life – data whose current homes are as diverse and widespread as their subjects'. A three-year, $4 million National Science Foundation grant supports the project, called “Arbor: Comparative Analysis Workflows for the Tree of Life.”
The effort brings together biologists, computer programmers and students. Work is ongoing at U-Idaho and in the labs of project co-investigators, which include software companies, the University of California – Berkeley, the University of Kansas, the University of Central Florida and the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The group hopes to create a user-friendly software interface that helps scientists combine, exchange and compare data.
“Arbor allows biologists to bring together data that right now is stored in little, tiny pieces all over the world,” Harmon explains.
Harmon coordinates all the pieces to be sure they fit – an important job in a project that’s bringing together scattered information from different fields. He talks to the biologists to see what data they have, and works with the computer scientists to see how their skills can help the biologists.
Recent versions of Arbor boast a mapping feature that lets researchers plot species all over the world. The software also can run OneZoom, an interactive visualization of the tree of life developed by former U-Idaho postdoctoral researcher James Rosindell and supported by Harmon.
Other U-Idaho researchers are studying evolutionary connections as well. College of Natural Resources assistant professor David Tank contributes to the NSF-supported Angiosperm Tree of Life Project, which maps the evolutionary relationships of flowering plants, and biological sciences professor Jack Sullivan studies methods for developing phylogenies, or evolutionary trees.
The data developed in such projects – and made accessible through programs such as Arbor – will not only help evolutionary biologists better understand how life evolved into the diversity we see today, but will also contribute to fields such as medicine, conservation biology, paleontology, anthropology and ecology.
Harmon points to biomedical applications as a prime example of the cross-disciplinary benefit. Vast amounts of data related to human health are available, but aren’t necessarily compiled. Scientists could some day use Arbor to map key health-related research such as the microbiome, which comprises all the microscopic life in and on the human body.
“There’s so much data, it’s hard to wrap your mind around it,” Harmon says.