A University of Florida researcher has solved the puzzle many biologists have been trying to understand for about 20 years.
Douglas Soltis, a UF biology professor with the Florida Museum of National History, has built the first draft of a “tree of life” which connects all of earth’s 2.3 million living organisms.
The National Science Foundation granted Soltis, along with UF biology assistant professor Gordon Burleigh and a team of colleagues from around the country, the opportunity to build this tree three years ago. On Sept. 18, the study was published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
This tree, however, does much more than explore how organisms are all related. It offers benefits to other fields of science, particularly when it comes to the study of infectious diseases.
In an article by UF News, Soltis said the tree will help trace the origin of infectious diseases. With this knowledge, scientists can work wonders.
Soltis used the flu virus as an example. Scientists must sequence a strain in order to produce a new vaccine to combat the virus every year. To do this, scientist must build a genetic tree to understand the relationship between old and new strains.
Soltis explained if you look back far enough, you will find a strain that is very similar to the strain being examined. Then you simply duplicate the vaccine that was made for the older strain.
“It’s like operating in the dark. That’s what people did before, they were just guessing,” Soltis said. “And now, when you know what something is related to, it makes a huge difference in your planning.”
Dr. Thomas Sanil, an infectious diseases specialist at North Florida Regional Medical Center, said he believes that if this tree can help doctors look at the origins of diseases that date back hundreds of years, it will help create working antibiotics for patients.
“One of the biggest issues right now with infectious disease, and bacteria especially, is resistance issues,” Sanil said. “We’re running out of medications these days.”
Understanding the genetics of older bacteria will help scientists find some of the genes that made certain bacteria resistant to antibiotics in the first place. Once these genes are found, they can be manipulated to make better antibiotics, Sanil said.
As a result, Sanil said the economy may benefit as well. The more effective a vaccine, the less money people will spend trying to find something that works.
Sanil said this tree of life may open the door to new ways of looking at diseases. He said being able to see and understand what a bacteria or viruses looked like 500 years ago could answer questions like why certain diseases carried genes back then and don’t now or new ways we can kill off harmful diseases.
“Maybe temperature change [or] environmental change can do the trick,” Sanil said. “I mean right now all we use is antibiotics for the most part, maybe there are other modalities we can use.”
Soltis said he plans to continue helping the tree of life grow.
“If people get that message, that phylogenetic trees really matter, not just from some trivial standpoint but in a really deep sense of human well-being, then that’s a huge accomplishment,” Soltis said.