What is the Tree of Life?
In his 1859 masterpiece On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin included just one illustration — a “tree” depicting branching and extinction through time.
With this he crystallized the idea that species share common ancestors at various points back in time. He referred to the genealogical relationships among all living things as “the great Tree of Life.”
Throughout the late 19th century there were many attempts to portray evolutionary relationships with tree-like diagrams. These were based on overall appearances — shared similarities in the form and structure of organisms.
However, it was not until the middle of the 20th century, especially through the work of the German entomologist Willi Hennig in the mid-1960s, that the analytical methods used by scientists today to study “phylogenetic” relationships began to be developed and modern research on the Tree of Life began.
This basic logic, together with extraordinary advances in computer science and molecular biology, prepared the way for the reconstruction of the entire Tree of Life. Owing to an exponential rise in phylogenetic research around the globe, we can now discern the branching pattern of the entire Tree. This mega-science effort has revolutionized our understanding of our own place in nature, and the resulting knowledge has already been put to an amazing variety of scientific and practical uses.