However, despite the detailed insights provided by individual genes, that approach has proved cumbersome in its ability to resolve the order of events in the distant past.
Now, a team of scientists from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, writing in the current issue (Oct. 23) of the prestigious journal Nature, has shown that new genomic-scale data offers powerful, unprecedented resolution of the evolutionary tree.
The finding is important because an accurate depiction of a tree of life promises biologists a summary of the history of life on Earth over billions of years. Such a rigorous historical framework is an essential backdrop not just for evolutionary biology, but also for efforts as diverse as the search for new drugs and agricultural agents, studies of emerging diseases, and evaluating issues of species conservation and ecosystem restoration.
"The overall goal is that we want to know who is related to whom," says Sean B. Carroll, a UW-Madison professor of genetics and the senior author of the Nature paper. "The challenge has been to decipher the true tree from those that have changed as data have been added and re-analyzed over time."
In efforts to arrive at a reliable tree of life, scientists since the 1980s have used genes to infer the evolutionary history for various organisms. By comparing one or a few genes common to related animals or plants, and looking at differences in the selected genes, scientists began to map out family trees for different plants, animals and microbes.