3Q: James Rosindell and Yan Wong
Putting all living things, from kingdom to species level, onto a single, easy-to-explore ‘tree of life’ is an ambitious project. But a newly formed charity has just gone a long way towards that by releasing the website www.onezoom.org. To crowdfund the new ‘OneZoom’ tree, biodiversity theorist James Rosindell and evolutionary biologist Yan Wong are asking the public to sponsor their favourite animals and plants. Here Rosindell and Wong talk about OneZoom, and why graphics from it have made their way into a fully revised edition of The Ancestor’s Tale – the 2004 classic Wong co-authored with Richard Dawkins.
What is OneZoom?
JR: It’s a way of visualizing large evolutionary trees as a branching fractal. Mindboggling quantities of data can be accessed easily and intuitively by panning and zooming in. With this technology we’re aiming to do for the living world what online mapping software like Google Earth has done for the physical world. Just as you might zoom from a map of the globe into a town, you could navigate into vertebrates and then, say, bats on the tree of life. Think of it as a digital natural history museum, aquarium, zoo and botanical gardens rolled into one.
YW: When James first mentioned OneZoom to me, I was in the middle of revising The Ancestor’s Tale. It became clear that the visual attractiveness and potential coverage of the entire tree of life meant OneZoom trees would be a great addition to the book, which attempts to distil the evolution of all life on earth. I looked in detail at around 100 phylogenetic studies that concern the lineage leading from humans back to the origin of life. Synthesising these studies into a single tree was necessary to give rigour to the ‘pilgrimage to the dawn of life’ that we undergo in The Ancestor’s Tale, and formed the backbone for the tree currently used in OneZoom.
What are you hoping to do now with crowdfunding?
Both: thanks largely to projects like the Open Tree of Life, we’ve now got the entire tree of life with over 2.1 million species — practically all known complex lifeforms — in our database. We’ve also developed visualization methods that allow seamless navigation. What we don’t have yet is a software engine capable of dealing with all those species on a normal PC, let alone a mobile phone. So our website currently only reveals a fraction of what is on our database. Our priority is improving the software core that runs behind the tree view so that we can handle all 2.1 million species.
JR: We chose a crowdfunding model where visitors to the site can feel a sense of ownership of the OneZoom tree of life by stamping their name on a leaf of the tree. The species you choose to sponsor is quite personal and that enhances the community feeling without detracting from the underlying scientific core of the project. Some leaves are sponsored by visitors to the website, others have been engraved as gifts from users to people they know, but there are also many wonderful species still available to choose from.
How will your tree stay up-to-date with shifts in the science?
JR: The disadvantage of human-drawn illustrations is that they can only be made for small trees and everything needs redrawing when the science is updated. Software that’s built to visualize trees tends to produce outputs more like graphs: simple to update, but lacking in visual design and only comfortable to read for an expert. The OneZoom viewer is unique because although it is easy to explore and visually appealing, it is also automatically generated.
YW: As for the topology of the tree — the order of branching and so forth — we have semi-automated pipelines in place to keep our tree up to date. They tie together several pre-existing, constantly maintained resources. For example, the Open Tree of Life release 5 came out on 7 April, and our pipeline was able to incorporate it and produce a new tree in time for our release less than a month later. However, some important areas of the tree still require hand curation: the main backbone of the tree and popular chunks. This is done as new studies are released. Another automated feature of the tree is our ‘popularity’ measure, based on visits and edits to Wikipedia pages. If there is a sustained increase in interest about a particular taxa on Wikipedia, this influences the prominence (and sponsorship price) of that leaf in the crowdfunding part of OneZoom.
Interview by Daniel Cressey, a reporter for Nature in London. He tweets at @DPCressey.
For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.