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Biology Professor Lisa Moore part of $13M NSF project to build a comprehensive Tree of Life

Associate Professor of Biology Lisa Moore

USM Biology Professor Lisa Moore part of $13M NSF project to build a comprehensive Tree of Life

A Tree of Life with 1.8 million branches? University of Southern Maine Biology Professor Lisa Moore will be working on such an evolutionary map as part of a National Science Foundation-funded research project to depict how all species are related and can be traced back to a common ancestor.

Since Charles Darwin first introduced the idea of a Tree of Life in the 1800s with a simple drawing, scientists have been working to discover the relationships between different groups of organisms, but have only determined small sections of the entire tree.

Moore received a three-year, $294,000 NSF grant to work in collaboration with a team of researchers from around the U.S. to assemble and analyze a Tree of Life focusing on the microbial world. Her project is one of the three in the NSF’s $13 million “Assembling, Visualizing, and Analyzing the Tree of Life” (AVAToL) program that will build a comprehensive Tree of Life accessible to scientists, students and the public.

Moore’s project, “Next Generation Phenomics for the Tree of Life,” will use a multidisciplinary team of biologists and computer scientists across the country to develop methods that will allow students and the public to participate in the collection of phenomic information, described as an organism’s characteristics and how the organism responds to environmental factors. “Much of the phenomic data needed to understand how organisms evolved and how they are related to each other has already been collected or is waiting to be obtained from specimens in scientific collections around the world,” says Moore. “There just aren’t enough scientists or tools available to do this efficiently.” Moore’s team hopes that the new methods it develops will rapidly advance the collection and analysis of the phenotypic data needed for AVAToL.

 “I became interested in this idea of pulling together phenomic information to help annotate the Tree of Life while teaching microbiology here at USM,” adds Moore, “I am excited to be part of this project and am looking forward to working with students at USM who will get to ‘test drive’ some of the methods that we will be developing.”

The AVAToL program will also be supporting efforts to create an online version of the tree containing information about all 1.8 million named species. Creating this central and online resource will allow the tree to be dynamic and evolving. Updates and revisions can be made as new data comes in as a result of the methods developed by Moore’s and other AVAToL teams.

Caption: This late 1830s sketch from Charles Darwin's notebook is likely the very first evolutionary tree. (Wikimedia Commons)