Plants Find Their Places on the Tree of
Researchers trying to piece together the tree of animal life are
hacking through dense foliage, barely able to see the top branches,
never mind the distant twigs (see
main text). But their colleagues studying plants have many of
their phylogenetic trees neatly pruned and manicured. Whereas the
animal and microbial types are wrestling with new techniques and
beginning to talk about collaborations, botanists have already
embraced the culture and methods of big science.
Over the past decade, 200 plant taxonomists from a dozen
countries have been analyzing and refiguring the evolutionary
history of their favorite flora in an effort called Deep Green. For
other systematists, the endeavor has become one to aspire to
(Science, 13 August 1999, p. 990).
"The plant people have made major advances as far as I can tell" and
are moving faster than animal-centric researchers, says Frederick
Schram, a barnacle expert at the University of Amsterdam.
By coming together, Deep Green researchers were able to identify
poorly studied groups and holes in the data. They then parceled out
the work to fill those holes. Although it sounds simple, Deep Green
depended on the vision of several systematists who rallied their
colleagues, says James Rodman, a plant systematist at the U.S.
National Science Foundation (NSF). Others say the plant people are
succeeding because their field and their trees--filled with a mere
300,000 species--are smaller. As a result, it seems "that the plant
people have a good handle on all sorts of data, almost to the point
of being truly comprehensive," says John Gittleman, an evolutionary
biologist at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville.
For the next step, the Deep Green researchers have been busy
figuring out the best way to combine their data into that one
tree--"our most accurate representation of the history of green
plants," says Charles O'Kelly, a systematic biologist at the Bigelow
Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in West Boothbay Harbor, Maine. The
work of wrestling their very large data sets into a single tree is
part of a 5-year, $2.7 million NSF grant involving six U.S. teams.
At the same time, there's an increased push to put all these data
into public databases.
Thus for plant taxonomists the next 5 years promise to be a data
gold rush. Several other projects, independently funded but
interconnected, are delving into less well- covered aspects of the
field. One, called Deep Gene, will help plant experts make use of
plant genomics information and vice versa. "Deep Time" researchers
will blend plant fossil finds with modern botany. And "Deepest
Green" delves into the base of the plant tree to sort out the
relationships among the green algae.
growing. On the Deep Green Web site (ucjeps.berkeley.edu/TreeofLife/hyperbolic.php),
this tree of plants gets more detailed with a click of the mouse.
Such a multipronged, coordinated assault makes some animal
systematists green with envy. "I think that the animal [researchers]
would profit by a similar approach rather than the winner-take-all
rodeo that seems to prevail right now in zoology," says Schram. If
his colleagues' competitive spirits could be converted to
cooperation, he says, "in a few years, we could achieve wonders."
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Volume 300, Number 5626, Issue of 13 Jun 2003, p. 1696.
Copyright © 2003 by The American Association for the
Advancement of Science. All rights reserved.