The ‘Google Earth’ of Biology
(July 7th, 2016) Get ready to visit the largest ever digital zoo, OneZoom. On display: all life forms on earth, including their evolutionary relationships.
Five years ago, two friends went for a walk. They traced the steps Charles Darwin is reputed to have taken several times a day around the ‘sandwalk’ at his home, Down House in Kent, England. There were many reasons why Darwin walked – fresh air, quiet time away from his ten children, or as he insisted, to think. Therefore, back in 2011, the two young scientists – James Rosindell and Luke Harmon – partly for inspiration, partly as fans, walked where Darwin walked. The inspiration they were hoping for struck just a few hours later, back in the busy streets of London. Harmon was lamenting the absence of tools for exploring large evolutionary trees and Rosindell, who originally trained as a mathematician, thought this could be achieved using mathematical structures known as fractals, and a zooming user interface. At that moment, OneZoom (www.onezoom.org) was born.
“Our aim is to do for biology what Google Earth has done for Geography,” says James Rosindell, now a research fellow at Imperial College, London. The idea that solidified as OneZoom was to create a visualisation of all life on earth and how it evolved, presented as a tree of life. This tree would be intuitive to use, regardless of whether the user is six or sixty. It would also be educational, capturing the attention and awe of a broad audience: nature enthusiasts, students, scientists and those with no scientific training. But how does one begin such a monumental task? There are millions of different species; how could all this information be condensed and visualised on one screen, yet supply all the information, photos included, at our fingertips? But, this was exactly the goal, “To make the natural earth accessible, so that anyone can pick up a tablet or phone and just ‘get it’ straight away,” describes Rosindell, “to communicate how much life there is out there and how amazing it all is, how it is all connected by a common ancestry, and how so many species are under threat of extinction.”
OneZoom occupied hundreds of hours of Rosindell’s spare time as he wrote the early software, which basically allowed huge amounts of data to be placed on ‘ONE’ page, and the user to pan and ‘ZOOM’ depending on where their interests take them. And, herein lies an advantage of OneZoom compared to other tools. The user can simply explore, guided by the evolutionary relationships among species, which is different from an encyclopaedia where you need to search, or a book where only limited information can be included. “Just as one might zoom into a country and then a town from a map on a globe, one could zoom into vertebrates and then say, bats on the tree of life,” explains Rosindell. For him, it’s a large digital zoo, natural history museum, aquarium and botanical garden all rolled into one.
Yan Wong, evolutionary biologist and co-author of the updated version of Richard Dawkins’s hugely successful The Ancestor’s Tale, became involved in the OneZoom project in 2013 during the re-writing process. The book became available in the UK earlier this year and features imagery from OneZoom throughout, including the coveted front cover spot, and associated website. Wong and Rosindell worked together over the last year to create the latest version of OneZoom, which now includes the complete tree of life to species level, embedded images for many of the species, and rich connections to further information.
The ‘tree’, once zoomed out, looks like a right side up walking cane with branches, and hanging off are coloured leaves. The crook of the cane is curved to the right, and as one zooms in, details begin to appear naturally, as the user courses through a tunnel-like journey spanning millennia. Each branch contains mindboggling numbers of sub branches each resulting from the birth of a new species. Each leaf represents a species, with a stunning image from the Encyclopaedia of Life, links to Wikipedia, and where applicable, conservation status from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
OneZoom now needs funding to upgrade the software to make the ‘unseen’ parts seen, and to improve the browsing experience as users explore their favourite species of worm or try to understand why humans are the only primates among their evolutionary neighbours who are not endangered. Due to the uniqueness of the project, funds from traditional sources proved difficult to come by, so Rosindell came up with the idea of ‘leaf sponsorship’, which is analogous to adopting an animal at a local zoo.
OneZoom is now a registered (not for profit) charity. The users who donate not only contribute to this fantastic resource, but they can also choose a leaf on the tree that has a special meaning to them or a friend, and have their name of choice typed around the edge of that leaf. “We wanted our supporters to feel a sense of ownership of the OneZoom tree of life because their name is stamped on it. The species you choose to sponsor, for yourself, or as a gift, is something quite personal and that enhances the community feeling without detracting from the underlying scientific core of the project,” says James about this novel funding approach for a science project. There is only one sponsor per species, so if you have a favourite species in mind, you’d better get it before someone else does! The modest funds raised through this route are the project’s only current source of income, which is needed to cover running costs and the cost of hiring professional developers to help maintain and improve the OneZoom codebase.
Rosindell, Wong and Harmon are now trustees of this special project and the charity that encompasses it, which they hope will eventually become completely self-sustaining. Displayed at conferences, museums, and schools, there is still much to be done to fully publicise this resource, tool, and educational experience. Whatever your interests, the developers encourage anyone with an internet connection and general curiosity about living things, to visit the site, spend a few minutes learning or being inspired by the huge variety of life that exists on earth, and how they are all connected through evolution. And of course, if you feel inspired, sponsor a leaf of your choice!