Rebuilding the Tree of Life

Scientists have long used genetics to sketch nature’s family tree—but the ink is far from dry. Here’s Emily Singer, writing for Simon Science News:

The current version of the tree of life is more like a contentious wiki page than a published book, with certain branches subject to frequent debate. Indeed, just as the spinal column and limbs created contrasting maps of primate evolution, scientists now know that different genes in the same organism can tell different stories.

With more information, though, comes the potential for greater confusion. A new algorithm, based on information theory, is helping researchers parse new data for the most informative genes, which can help build more detailed and accurate phylogenetic trees.

They hope the new approach will help to clarify periods of evolution that are potentially the most illuminating but also the most conflicted, such as the Cambrian explosion—the rapid diversification of animal life that occurred about 540 million years ago.

Their analysis will contribute to a broader reevaluation of how evolution works.