Organizing Life

hopperLinnaeus probably couldn’t have guessed that we would one day be able to classify organisms by sequencing and comparing large chunks of their genomes (since he didn’t know what a genome was). That’s what phylogenomics does, and it’s leading to rapid advances in our understanding of how life evolved.

In the late ’90s, my dad and I discussed the idea of a DNA machine that could quickly and accurately categorize organisms in the field. E.O. Wilson had suggested that cataloging the world’s species was the first step in preserving biodiversity. I mentioned the DNA machine idea to my adviser at Colorado State University and he suggested that what I was talking about was like the Star Trek tricorder, which, among other things, could detect and classify lifeforms.* I later submitted this idea to Google  and, surprise, never heard back from them (come on Sergey, make it so).

We’ve made huge strides in rapidly assaying DNA so, with or without Google, we’ll soon have much more accurate evolutionary trees. One small project I did with CSU’s insect collection was to examine the pygmy grasshoppers and make sure they were correctly classified. I found a few that were miscategorized, but it was some pretty painstaking work with a microscope.** Now a huge group of scientists has used phylogenomics to more accurately determine the origin of insects (~479 million years ago, before terrestrial ecosystems), the origin of insect flight (304 mya), and the relationships of numerous extant groups.

Studies like these promise to revolutionize our understanding of evolution, and will help us more rapidly categorize the diversity that exists (2 million down, 98 million to go?). Now if we could only get that tricorder going.


*Please correct me if I’m wrong, Trekkie nerds (I’m sure you will).

**While doing field work for my Master’s in southeastern Colorado, I apparently found a new species of robber fly (so my adviser told me). I asked what it would take for me to describe it and get it listed as a new species. “Well, first you would need to spend about 20 years studying that particular group of flies, and then…” my attention was lost. There are millions of undescribed specimens wasting away in museum and university collections – wouldn’t this be a good thing to crowdsource?

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