Beautiful Ramifications
Perspectives On Line: The Magazine of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

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Information received from the "flyodiversity" study could have implications for human health, food security and conservation. (Photo by Becky Kirkland)



Beautiful Ramifications: a College entomologist leads an international team mapping flies' tree of life--- by Dee Shore.
Dr. Brian Weigmann and his team have received a $2.4 million grant to figure out where flies fit in life's geneology. (Photo by Becky Kirkland)

See Related Section: "Inaugural R.L. Rabb Lecture: Naturalist Edward O. Wilson urges exploration of Earth's biodiversity"

Ornate letter "O"
ne of modern science’s most profound ideas is the concept that all of life, from the smallest microorganism to the largest vertebrate, is genetically connected in a vast evolutionary genealogy.

A College of Agriculture and Life Sciences entomologist has pulled together an international team of scientists prepared to use DNA analysis, higher math and powerful computers to help create a better picture of one of the largest branches of what Charles Darwin called the “great Tree of Life ... with its ever-branching and beautiful ramifications.”

Dr. Brian Wiegmann’s team has been awarded a $2.4 million grant to examine the evolutionary and genetic ties among the 125,000 species that make up the order Diptera, the two-winged insects called true flies.

The project is part of a massive National Science Foundation-funded effort to pull together a family tree for all 1.7 million known living species.

NSF calls its Assembling the Tree of Life project a “megascience initiative” with implications as important as the Human Genome Project or the mission to Mars. With a 15- to 20-year timeline, the project emphasizes the importance of interdisciplinary research across fields as diverse as genomics, computer science and engineering, informatics, mathematics, Earth sciences, developmental biology and environmental biology.

Wiegmann’s collaborators include entomologists, biologists and geneticists from every continent. The researchers will create a picture of the historical relationships, explaining similarities and differences among flies, mosquitoes, gnats and midges since the first ones emerged 250 million years ago.

While they assemble the fly tree over the next five years, the researchers also will train a large number of undergraduate and postgraduate students in Australia, Canada, the United States and Singapore. They also plan to share their findings with educators and others through a Web site.

Wiegmann’s co-principal investigators in the five-year project are Dr. David Yeates with Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, Dr. Rudolf Meier of the National University of Singapore, Dr. Gregory W. Courtney of Iowa State University and Dr. Markus Friedrich of Wayne State University.

These scientists and their collaborators will use a combination of genetic data, computer modeling and morphology – information on a species’ form and structure – to figure out where the insects fit into life’s genealogy.

The team also includes taxonomists and data management experts, including F. Christian Thompson of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Systematic Entomology Laboratory and Gail Kampmeier of the Illinois Natural History Survey.

They will create the kind of shortcuts needed to make sense of a huge amount of fly data, helping link names and relationships with fossil records, morphological studies and modern genetic maps.

Wiegmann, an associate professor in the Department of Entomology, said that information gleaned from the study could have implications for human health, food security and conservation. Flies transmit some of the worst viruses infecting people and animals, and they also take a heavy toll on crops.

Among the questions that the Tree of Life can help answer: Why can some mosquitoes transmit viruses like those that cause malaria, West Nile and dengue fever, while others can’t, and how have certain species become resistant to insecticides?

The tree will also provide information for protecting the environment and advancing our understanding of genetics. Fruit flies have long been the model species for genetics research, and flies are ecologically important, pollinating plants and decomposing waste.

Says Yeates, the Australian entomologist, “A big part of biodiversity is actually ‘flyodiversity.’ Of nearly 2 million living species known to science – and there are many more yet to be discovered – around 10 percent are flies, or Diptera, of some sort.”

Wiegmann believes the Tree of Life project will help scientists get a better grasp of that diversity at a time when it is changing rapidly.

“Earth is such a diverse place, and we know relatively little about most organisms and what leads to changes over time,” Wiegmann says. “Because of advances in computer speed and genomics, we have the technology to generate and organize an amazing amount of information into a broader framework that can help us understand this fragile and constantly changing diversity and its ramifications.”

See Related Section: "Inaugural R.L. Rabb Lecture: Naturalist Edward O. Wilson urges exploration of Earth's biodiversity"

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