Scientists Research Plant Cells To Reconstruct the ‘Tree of Life’

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Contributing Writer
Friday, November 22, 2002

Several UC Berkeley researchers are on a mission to complete part of the ultimate jigsaw puzzle—an understanding of how all living things are related to one another.

The researchers received a new $3 million grant this week from the National Science Foundation to conduct a study of plant genomes.

"The idea is to reconstruct the whole tree of life," said UC Berkeley integrative biology professor Brent Mishler. "We think all living things are related to each other, and it's just a matter of which are related more closely to each other, and which are related farther from each other."

Mishler is one of nine principal investigators from six institutions charged with sequencing chloroplast and mitochondrial genomes from 50 representative plants.

Berkeley researchers are participating in one of seven separate projects focusing on different branches of the tree of life—birds, dinosaurs, plants, spiders, bacteria, fungi and worms.

The total project will cost $17 million and is to be funded by the National Science Foundation's "Assembling the Tree of Life" program.

Chloroplasts and mitochondria, responsible for energy prod"The plan is to do the complete chloroplast and mitochondria genomes and then develop models based on these smaller genomes," Mishler said.

Mishler's team plans to compare and contrast both genomic and structural characteristics of plants in order to establish evolutionary relationships.

Researchers hope the project will shed light on the evolution of plant life on Earth while giving a clearer picture of things that were already partially understood by scientists.

"I think (the project) will give us a framework for interpreting a lot of results in a broader context," said Berkeley research botanist Alan Smith, another co-principal investigator on the project. "We have an idea about the importance of some of these genes and sequences, but when we get to a broader comparison between species, we'll get a better understanding of evolution and development."

Experts in the field were enthusiastic about the potential impact of the collaborative projects.

"When we're interested in the evolutionary history leading to present-day ecological diversity, the tree of life gives us insights into this," said Stanford University plant ecology professor David Ackerly. "With the tree of life, we can ask very basic questions about the direction of evolution."