IntroductionEgenis researchers have been awarded a grant of more than £70,000 from the Leverhulme Trust.
The grant will fund the formation of an international network to explore representations of evolutionary relationships between organisms, and particularly of how microbes interact genetically with one another across evolutionary time.
The project ‘Questioning the Tree of Life’, will involve a network of biologists and philosophers from across Europe and North America, co-ordinated by Egenis.
“The tree of life (ToL) purports to represent the true evolutionary relationships amongst organismal lineages as a single ever-bifurcating pattern,” says Egenis Director Professor John Dupré. “It has existed as a concept since Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Huge databases of genetic data have consolidated ToL research as an international scientific project with the aim of resolving the branching order of the tree.
“Underlying these global research aims, however, are major assumptions about evolutionary relationships and their depictions. Yet it is not at all clear that these assumptions are warranted. In the last several years, the increased availability of molecular data from many organisms, especially microbes, has thrown these traditional assumptions into disarray.”
The aim of the Leverhulme funded network is to connect currently separated perspectives: the key biologists (microbial, plant and animal) working on and challenging the underlying concept of the ToL, and the philosophers who have focused on and raised questions about systematics, species concepts and phylogenetic methods. The primary research objectives are to clarify the assumptions of ToL thinking, examine the alternatives, and develop philosophical approaches to novel ways of thinking about and representing the evolution of organismal lineages.
Among the lead participants in the network are Professor W. Ford Doolittle, Canada Research Chair in Comparative Microbial Genomics at Dalhousie University, and Professor Elliott Sober, Hans Reichenbach Professor and William F. Vilas Research Professor at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.
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