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Q&a: Tiffani Williams, Computer Scientist, on Creating an Open Source Tree of Life

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A representation of the Open Tree of Life.

The Open Tree of Life project aims to develop an open source compendium of existing knowledge on known plant and animal species, to serve as a research tool.

Credit: Stephan Smith

In an interview, Texas A&M University computer scientist Tiffani Williams discussed the Open Tree of Life project, which aims to develop an open source compendium of existing knowledge on thousands of plant and animal species that would serve as a research tool for both scientists and the public.

"We as human beings have this notion of appreciating our family history," Williams says. "All the tree of life does is take that to another level. Instead of thinking of a family in terms of your human ancestors, the tree of life is the world’s ancestry, which includes all of the world’s organisms."

Scientists are currently aware of 1.7 million species, but estimates run as high as 100 million organisms in existence.

Williams notes that one of the challenges of the project will be to merge the various trees of life into one unified tree. "It could be that two findings just outright conflict each other," she says, noting that researchers are uncertain as to how best to represent conflicting opinions in the unified tree.

The project depends on contributions from the community, and Williams hopes the tree will ultimately achieve a level of usefulness in phylogenic research that equals that of Wikipedia for general research.

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