Thought about your phylogeny lately?
Well, if you haven't, perhaps you should check out the The Tree of Life Home Page, a site housed here at the University of Arizona that has been getting more and more 'Net attention.
The Tree of Life organizes phylogeny data and web pages to create an on-line 'phylogenetic navigator' for the masses.
For the layman, phylogeny is the lineage of the evolutionary development of a species. Think of it as a kind of road map to how evolution has shaped life as we know it, from plants to bugs to bacteria. The Tree of Life maps out this evolutionary tree, bu t with graphics, research data and hyperlinks, to create an on-line reference to cover the evolution of every living thing on the planet.
Created by UA associate professors and sibling team David R. and Wayne P. Maddison, the Tree of Life currently spans 1,200 web pages on 18 different computers in 3 different countries. Authors all over the world compose specific pages according to the Tree's gaps which are then connected to the main portion of the Tree, housed on the UA's Agriculture computers, as http://phylogeny.arizona.edu/tree/phylogeny.html.
As the project is only 2.5 years old, most of the database's links aren't completed yet, but the ones that are form a researcher's paradise and an interesting surf. Photos, visual representations of the organism's place within the tree, extensive bibliog raphies and email links accompany the majority of existing pages to give an in-depth look at specific organisms.
David Madison, an associate entomology professor, says he first envisioned the concept for the Tree while teaching in the 1980's. At the time, the existing software didn't fit the needs for what the Tree called for.
The site began to take shape in 1993, David says, "right when I first started noticing the Web." Hypertext behaved much more in the manner he had originally imagined the Tree, he says. David credits brother and site co-developer Wayne, an associate profe ssor of ecology and evolutionary biology, with "kick-starting" the project in the summer of 1994. The Tree unofficially went on-line in November of that year.
Since it's official opening in 1996, the Tree of Life has racked up over 203,000 hits and won a slew of awards along the way. Kudos from 'net guides like Lycos' Pointcom, a three-star site award from Magellan and a write-up in this month's Internet World Magazine, the Tree of Life's Award s Page seems to be growing as fast as the database itself.
As for funding, Maddison says the Tree's only financial boost has been a $3,000 grant to cover image scanning. With attention generated by the site's growth and awards, though, applications for more backing are in the works.
While the Tree of Life site was originally begun as a research tool, Maddison says, it is seeing increasing use as a teaching device. As new pages are being designed, he says, their content is being redirected to cater to both audiences.
"People love to see all these wonderful organisms. I think that's part of the appeal," says Maddison of the site's ability to draw different on-line crowds.
Future plans for the Tree aim to make it more student-friendly, and there is hope for "eventually" getting a dedicated server, says David.
While the site is expanding and gaining attention the real thrust of the Tree is perhaps less obvious than providing a research and educational tool, he says.
"The big thing that might almost escapes notice ... is the very concept that all living things are connected in a physical manner," he says, which the Tree makes easy to explore.
"To me that's a very profound idea ...and I think some people really clearly get into that."