Distinguished professor Doug Soltis discusses his development of the Tree of Life project. After 30 years of research, Soltis has revealed a small portion of Tree, which includes 2.3 million species. He describes future plans for the project, which will take many more years to complete. He explains how the Tree of Life can help cure disease, develop medicines, improve agricultural crops and predict how plants and animals are going to move in response to climate change.

Interview and videos produced by Ellen Sharpe for Explore Research at the University of Florida.


Doug Soltis: So one of our research goals is to help to build the Tree of Life, which is really a family tree for all of the species that are on our planet and right now there are 2.3 million species that are in that Tree of Life, but there are probably 10 million more species that remain un-described, un-named, and still to be placed in that Tree of Life, so it’s a massive undertaking. 


So the Tree of Life is much like your family tree, if you understand who your relatives are who your ancestors are that’s very informative, if an ancestor has a disease you understand about there’s a probability I might have inherited the gene for that trait so we can learn a lot from trees of relationships. They can help us cure disease, develop medicines, improve crops, and we can even predict how plants and animals are going to move in response to a change in climate because closely related species are going to respond in a similar way to a changing environment.

As we rapidly lose species you’re rapidly losing species that could be beneficial to our own species forever. Imagine the loss forever of a plant that holds the cure to cancer that could have saved the life of your children or grandchildren.

To help people appreciate the size, the immensity of the Tree of Life we print it off a small part of it, a part of it this about 130 feet long, it contains over 5,000 species all printed it 12-point font and this is a way to show that the entire Tree of Life is so much larger, because it would, at that same size, if we printed it for all 2.3 million species, would require the Empire State Building, four sides of the Empire State Building, four sides of 14 Empire State buildings, to really show the whole Tree of Life at the same scale that we are printing this one small piece that we’re going to hang from the tallest building at the University of Florida.

Thirty years ago our group tried to build what we thought were the first big trees, at that time, which were just for a few hundred species and we were actually told it was impossible because it was such a difficult problem to solve mathematically, but through a perfect storm of technology and computer power here we are 30 years later in that dream of being able to put together a comprehensive tree for all the 2.3 million named species was realized, and now the job is for people around the world, in a Wikipedia-like fashion, to work on that tree and improve that tree. We still have 10 million or more species to go that have to be named, described, and added to this tree so this process is going to go on for many, many, many decades.

Learn more about the Molecular Systematics & Evolutionary Genetics Lab at the Florida Museum.

Explore Research at the University of Florida

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