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Computing Evolution

Scientists sift through genetic data sets to better map twisting branches in the tree of life

Among its many prose-filled pages, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species includes only one illustration. It’s a diagram of short lines leading upward from the base — a few lines at the bottom branch out repeatedly as they extend up. Darwin meant for the image to depict what he dubbed the “tree of life.” This figure embodied Darwin’s vision for how the tremendous diversity of life on Earth arose. A few species — the base of the tree — mutate and evolve over time, sometimes branching to form new species. An ancient species of bird might colonize a chain of islands and slowly evolve narrower beaks or other features specialized for the birds’ new habitats. Eventually, groups in different habitats become separate species, and each species continues to evolve and adapt, perhaps branching again. In this way, the first fishlike land animals gave rise to the great diversity of amphibians, lizards, insects, rodents, marsupials, primates and birds.

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