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Deer mouse.

The highly fatal hantavirus is carried by deer mice, and genetic analysis has shown that mice and hantaviruses have a long co-evolutionary history in the Americas, suggesting that most major mice lineages may carry an associated hantavirus.

Blossoming of a billion-year-old tree

University researchers are part of a massive effort to construct the evolutionary tree of life

By Deane Morrison

Published on September 20, 2005

If you have siblings, you know the warm feeling when somebody tells you you don't look a thing like your bratty younger brother or snotty older sister. All well and good, but when close relatives in the plant, animal, or microbial world don't resemble each other, it can make it hard to target pesticides appropriately, identify invasive species before they damage an ecosystem, or predict a likely source organism for a drug, among other difficulties. That's why the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2002 launched its 15-year "Assembling the Tree of Life"(ATOL) project to construct a family tree for 1.7 million known species of plants, animals, and microbes. Among the awardees are several researchers with the University's Bell Museum of Natural History. "We have four active grants. That's as many as any other institution in the country," says Bell Museum Director Scott Lanyon. The other institutions with four ATOL grants are the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the University of California, Berkeley--good company, indeed. Why is it so important to know the close relatives of organisms most people have never heard of? Consider the drug taxol, used to fight breast and ovarian cancer. It was discovered in the bark of the Pacific yew, a tree too rare to supply enough of the drug, not to mention that stripping its bark would kill it. But scientists knew that the English yew was a close relative, and it was found that taxol could be fairly easily made from a substance in its needles, meaning it was a renewable source of the drug.

"We have four active grants. That's as many as any other institution in the country," says Bell Museum Director Scott Lanyon. The other institutions with four ATOL grants are the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the University of California, Berkeley--good company, indeed.

Another case concerned a type of marine algae found at several spots along the California coast. DNA analysis identified the algae and showed that it was closely related to a highly invasive strain that had caused grave damage in the Mediterranean. This led to an immediate eradication plan to save California's coastal ecosystem. A third example is the recently discovered--and highly fatal--hantavirus in the American Southwest. The virus is carried by deer mice, and genetic analysis has shown that mice and hantaviruses have a long co-evolutionary history in the Americas, suggesting that most major mice lineages may carry an associated hantavirus. In fact, dozens of additional hantaviruses have been found in the New World alone, and many cause disease in humans. This work implies the existence of even more hantaviruses still undiscovered in rodents around the world. For the University's part, its ATOL grants to date total more than $2 million and involve collaborative work with researchers at other institutions. Projects cover a wide variety of organisms: As the great geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900-1975) said, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." With help from University researchers, that light is shining in corners where all kinds of knowledge awaits discovery.