NSF Funded Vertebrate Tree of Life Projects

While walking through the rise of vertebrates in Evolving Planet or exploring the connections of all life through our genes in The DNA Discovery Center, one cannot help but try and comprehend the tree of life. No one group of organisms has captured our attention more than the evolution of vertebrates or animals that have a backbone. The evolution of the major groups in this assemblage are separated into traditional groupings by characters ranging from the presence of jaws to a water-tight egg to feathers and hair.

For centuries scientists have tried to resolve the relationships within and among these various vertebrate groups: lampreys, cartilaginous fishes, coelacanths, lungfishes, ray-finned fishes, amphibians, squamates, turtles, crocodiles, birds, and mammals. In an effort to support our tracing of the evolution within these groups and all other forms of life, the National Science Foundation has been funding large-scale collaborative studies through their Assembling the Tree of Life (AToL) initiative. The Field Museum has received funding for AToL projects examining beetles, spiders, bivalves, liverworts, and the three vertebrate groups highlighted below: birds, squamates, and euteleostean fishes. In total, these three grants have brought in nearly 1.7 million dollars to The Field Museum.

To learn more about DNA research at The Field Museum, see the Pritzker Laboratory and DNA Discovery Center's web pages.

ATOL: COLLABORATIVE RESEARCH Early Bird: A Collaborative Project to Resolve the Deep Nodes of Avian Phylogeny (NSF-DEB-0228675) - PI Shannon Hackett; $900,695

Early Bird was one of the first projects to be funded under the AToL initiative and is a large-scale cooperative effort among five institutions in the U.S. to determine the evolutionary relationships among all major groups of birds. The project will make these relationships known to the research community and the public, and make it possible to use these relationships as a comparative framework with which to organize and understand the vast amount of information already available on avian ecology, evolution, physiology, and behavior. ore the data themselves.

The results of this project to-date has been an extraordinary data matrix of nuclear DNA sequence data from 20+ genes for 250 species of birds. The impact of this project on science and society has been far reaching. Birds are among the most prominent and engaging creatures in most ecosystems worldwide. They have been the subject of an extraordinary number and diversity of scientific studies that figure largely in our understanding of the natural world and humanity's place in it. Their position high in many food chains together with their great mobility makes them sensitive indicators of environmental quality, and monitoring of bird populations is widely used to set conservation and management priorities. Their powers of flight, physical beauty and captivating behaviors amaze and inspire us, and birds provide tremendous amounts of recreation for serious hunters and birders, as well as millions of backyard birdwatchers each year. All of these human interactions with birds can be enriched by a better understanding of avian evolutionary history and genetic diversity.

ATOL: Collaborative Research: Assembling the Euteleost Tree of Life - Addressing the Major Unresolved Problem in Vertebrate Phylogeny (NSF-DEB-0732642) – PI W. Leo Smith; $241,576

The EToL was one of the later projects to be funded under the AToL initiative and is a large-scale cooperative effort among eight institutions in the U.S. to determine the evolutionary relationships among all major groups of deep-sea and spiny-rayed fishes.  These 18,000+ species of euteleost fishes represent over one third of vertebrate diversity and include most of the economically important fishes such as salmons, basses, cods, and tunas. An important component will be education of the public on the importance, evolutionary history, and diversity of these animals. Phylogenetic analyses will employ DNA sequence data from 20 genes in 1,500 species representing all euteleost families, and approximately 450 morphological characters from 300 euteleost lineages. Resulting phylogenetic hypotheses will be used to facilitate understanding of the evolution of fish diversity and re-assess and revise the systematics of euteleosts. Research on the euteleost tree of life will be integrated into science education by using euteleost phylogeny as a framework for exploring the evolution of morphological, genetic, developmental, and behavioral diversity of fishes.

ATOL: Collaborative Research: The Deep Scaly Project: Resolving Squamate Phylogeny Using Genomic and Morphological Approaches (NSF-DEB-0334961) – PIs Maureen Kearney and Olivier Rieppel;  $553,414

Deep Scaly was one of the early projects to be funded under the AToL initiative and is a large-scale cooperative effort among six institutions in the U.S. and Australia to determine the evolutionary relationships among all major groups of squamates (lizards and snakes).

With over 7,700 species, squamates are the second largest group of terrestrial vertebrates. Many critical questions in squamate evolution remain unresolved, such as identification of the most primitive lineage of squamates, the origin of snakes, and the relationships of venomous snakes to other snake lineages. Anatomical data from living and fossil forms will be combined with DNA sequences from 50 genes for 142 representative squamate species. Anatomical data will be obtained using traditional methods, as well as new technology such as high resolution X-ray CT scanning. DNA data will be generated by incorporating new tools and databases from recent vertebrate genome projects. Understanding the evolutionary history of squamate reptiles is critical for a complete picture of vertebrate evolution and ecology. Venomous snakes pose an important threat to human safety in many parts of the world, and identification is critical for effective treatment; an innovative web-site will be produced allowing snakebite victims and medical workers to identify the venomous snakes in their area.