Guam – The echinoderms – starfish, sea urchins and their kin – is the next major group of organisms to be documented in the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Assembling the Tree of Life project.
A University of Guam scientist, Alexander M Kerr, will join an international team from ten institutions in using genetic information from modern species, as well as data from fossils dating back more than 500 million years to figure out precisely where echinoderms fit into the history of all life. The $3 million initiative begins in January 2011.
Echinoderms include five living classes of animals whose common names are starfish, brittle stars, sea urchins, crinoids and sea cucumbers. But those five living classes don’t tell the entire echinoderm story. Up to 16 other classes are extinct and known to have existed since at least the Cambrian Period, 540 million years ago. Fossil echinoderms are common throughout Earth’s history, but a comprehensive effort to reconstruct the group’s entire history has yet to be attempted.
This project is rare within the NSF Tree of Life initiative for its mix of coral-reef biologists, paleontologists, geneticists and computational biologists. “We all complement one another – the idea is to pool and digitize as much information as possible and come up with a consensus about how evolutionary history unfolded in echinoderms,” said Bill Ausich, a team leader and palaeontologist at Ohio State University.
Meanwhile, other scientists will be able to collect genetic and anatomical data on living echinoderms. “The University of Guam Marine Laboratory will form an important link in this project by providing researchers unrivalled access to a rich and poorly studied set of living species of echinoderms in our region.” Kerr said.
That broad combination of research techniques, however, will also pose an information-technology challenge. To address this, computational biologists will link computers together to analyze massive amounts of data. The computer array will explore the similarities and differences between the modern samples containing both genetic and anatomical information, and the fossils containing only anatomical information to construct what is called a phylogenetic tree for the entire echinoderm group. Phylogenetics is the study of the evolutionary relationships among various biological species believed to have a common ancestor. “The Tree of Life is, in fact, one massive phylogenetic structure involving all organisms, from bacteria to fungi as well as plants and animals.” notes Dan Janies, team organiser and computational biologist at Ohio State University Medical School.
Collaborating institutions for this project are the universities of Guam, Michigan, and Tennessee; Abilene Christian, Duke, West Virginia, Louisiana State and Nova Southeastern universities; and the University of California, San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography.