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University of Southern Maine professor to work on $13M evolutionary mapping project

Seth Koenig | BDN
Seth Koenig | BDN
University of Southern Maine biology Prof. Lisa Moore holds a culture of prochlorococcus, the most abundant photosynthetic bacteria in the world's oceans, at her Portland lab Thursday, June 14, 2012. Moore is taking part in a $13 million National Science Foundation project to develop an evolutionary "Tree of Life."
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By Seth Koenig, BDN Staff

PORTLAND, Maine — A University of Southern Maine biology professor has been chosen to take part in an ambitious $13 million nationwide effort to map an evolutionary tree of life featuring all 1.8 million species documented on Earth.

According to a university announcement issued this week, the National Science Foundation-funded project aims to produce a digital diagram depicting how all of the planet’s species are related and how they trace back to a common ancestor. That’s everything from people to prochlorococcus — tiny bacteria prominent in the world’s oceans — in one big sprawling web of organisms.

The project is titled “Assembling, Visualizing and Analyzing the Tree of Life,” or AVAToL in popular acronymic parlance.

Lisa Moore, who has taught microbiology at USM for 12 years and is one of many researchers across the country taking part in the work, said participants also hope to develop ways for “citizen scientists” to help out with the research by photographing animals or bones to be analyzed and added to the massive amounts of data already collected over years of evolutionary research.

Moore’s role in the project, which also involves professors from places such the University of Florida and Oregon State University, is to help develop a computer program that can sift through reams of scientific research already available describing the world’s micro-organisms, then extrapolate and sort characteristics relevant to their evolutionary chains.

“There’s a lot of literature out there and it really hasn’t been pulled together in this way, especially for micro-organisms,” Moore said.

Other researchers across the country will be working on similar projects focused on the animal kingdom, while others will be developing computer programs that can scan images of all the critters and use something like face recognition software to harvest pertinent characteristics from the pictures.

By the end of it all — the National Science Foundation grant covers three years of work — the scientists hope to have a searchable, sortable tree of life diagram posted on the Internet and accessible to the public.

The evolutionary map will include phenomic data — observable traits such as shape and color, as well as how an organism responds to its environment — compiled from scientific texts all over the world, on top of whatever genetic information has been cataloged over the years.

It’s the phenomic data the project participants will seek the public’s help in collecting. Moore said the researchers plan to draft common language and photographing protocols for citizen scientists looking to help out, similar to how NASA has sought astrology hobbyists to help pour through images of space to help locate celestial bodies.

“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,” said Moore, whose micro-organism portion of the project is budgeted as a $294,000 slice of the overall pie. “There just aren’t enough scientists or tools available to do this efficiently.”

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