The Open Tree of Life database is not just a list with about two million species. Information is added about their special characteristics and possible relationships with others as well. “It may become tens or hundreds of million pieces of data when we are all done.”

Open Stephen Smith, an evolutionary biology professor at the University of Michigan, is working together with the other researchers of the Open Tree of Life project to develop the programs and tools that will be used to construct the full tree of life. Scientists from all over the world can then synthesize all the information in the database. “We are currently building the back-end of the Open Tree of Life. We need to create software that allows us to put all our information in a graph network, so that we can easily retrieve the information that researchers are specifically looking for.”

Social network for species

That graph database is constructed in the same way popular social media networks are, such as Facebook and Twitter, where many millions of users are linked to each other. Instead of connecting personal accounts to the ones of other “Facebook friends” or “Twitter followers,” the Open Tree of Life network links species based on their evolutionary relationships. Additionally, Facebook launched its Graph Search a few weeks ago, which operates with algorithms similar to search engines from, for example, Google and Bing. The results are based on entire phrases and not just individual keywords, which makes it a lot more challenging to promptly present what the users are really looking for. “With such a large amount of data it is important for social media companies to learn how those networks can retrieve information swiftly,” explains Smith. “We are basically doing the same thing, trying to connect the dots in a meaningful way and as efficient as possible.”