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Visualizing a Vast World Cont.

Rosindell, a research associate at Imperial College London, worked as a visiting postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Idaho in the laboratory of Luke Harmon, an associate professor of biological sciences. Harmon’s research and support have been vital to the OneZoom project.

OneZoom was born on the day Harmon and Rosindell visited Charles Darwin’s house in 2011. Rosindell had long been fascinated with fractals, which are mathematical sets that repeat similar patterns at all levels of magnification. He realized a fractal-like structure could be used to visualize complex data – including trees of life.

“The first time James explained it to me, I knew that it was going to be revolutionary,” Harmon says.

Harmon studies phylogenies at U-Idaho and is principal investigator for the $4 million National Science Foundation project “Arbor: Comparative Analysis Workflows for the Tree of Life.” The Arbor project is creating software to help researchers analyze trees of life to better understand topics such as extinction rates, why some animal groups are more diverse and why some groups evolve more quickly.

He says OneZoom brings together the goals of Arbor and two other NSF-sponsored projects: the Open Tree of Life, which gathers data from around the world to create the first comprehensive tree of all named species, and Next Generation Phenomics for the Tree of Life, which develops ways of studying species’ phenotypes, their physical and biochemical traits.

While Open Tree of Life can provide the basic data to build OneZoom trees, the other projects provide additional details that can be incorporated into a tree. Right now, each species’ leaf includes information about population and conservation status, as well as a Wikipedia link, but Rosindell says the site plans to add “microdots” encompassing embedded text, photos, maps or even whole books of information, which users can access when they zoom in for more detailed views.

Rosindell plans to include every known tetrapod – a vertebrate group encompassing mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles – in OneZoom within the next few months. Fish will be added later, but there are as many fish as all other tetrapods total, so the data are enormous.

Rosindell and Harmon’s ultimate goal is to include all the 2 million-plus known species together with photos and other interesting information within a single page of OneZoom.

“It will be like a library of life on earth,” Rosindell says. “It will help people see that there is actually a good evidence-based explanation for all these evolutionary links.”

Harmon and his students use OneZoom in his lab at U-Idaho, but he and Rosindell hope to see it utilized outside academia.

Museums, zoos and aquariums could one day customize OneZoom. Harmon and Rosindell envision high-definition touch-screen monitors that could guide visitors of all ages through a location and inform them about the organisms they see.

Harmon says OneZoom and other tree of life projects can help people better understand how evolution works and appreciate how it affects areas such as medicine, engineering and industry. For example, studies of antibiotic resistance rely on evolutionary information about bacteria.

“Evolution’s not just some kind of abstract idea,” he says. “It’s just another example of science making people’s lives better.”

Understanding evolution and biodiversity is vital to conservation efforts as well, Rosindell says.

“We still understand very little about ecology and evolution compared to what there is to know,” he says. “If you don’t understand how it works, you won’t be able to repair it.”

And, in the future, the OneZoom software could be applied to large data sets outside biology, whether it’s used to display the files on a computer, a family genealogy or a network of sensors in an industrial plant. Since the software is open source, anyone can freely experiment with it.

“The original birth of OneZoom was the idea of a mind-map of all human knowledge,” Rosindell says. “With a OneZoom interface, you can put as much information as you want on a single page.”

Visit OneZoom and trees of life at www.onezoom.org.

Tree of life branches out

Watch a video of James Rosindell explaining OneZoom More