Putting It All Together Again

Frontier of biology assembles data, looks for patterns
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Jan 12, 2009

A hundred and fifty years after Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace assembled mountains of disparate data into one grand synthesis, and fifty years after scientists began cranking out the gene-by-gene description of every life form they could get their hands on, you’d think it’s about time for a little more synthesis to put it all together again.

In a row of small offices that could pass for an insurance agency, Duke biology professor Kathleen Smith heads an experimental program aimed at jump-starting just that. (see also 5-Question Interview)

Many of the young scientists at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, or NESCent, have experience catching dangerous things in swamps and doing mind-numbing tasks to satisfy the needs of laboratory machines. But here they enjoy dry shoes while sitting in front of computers and scribbling on white boards.

The researchers are doing mash-ups of related data from different disciplines of science and different orders of life, trying to get their heads around the patterns that will reveal some larger truths.

NESCent postdoctoral fellows Samantha Price and David Kidd, for example, combined several sets of data on the evolution and geographic spread of hoofed animals. The result is huge, colorful poster depicting the seventy-four-million-year-old history of the entire artiodactyl family tree imposed on a series of maps that shows, with new clarity, when and where camels, cows and antelopes went their separate ways. (see 1,100 Words)

“Visualization is so important for synthesis,” says Price, who recently moved from Durham to the University of California at Davis. “When you’ve got a huge set of synthetic data, you can’t really understand it without visualization.”

The four-year-old NESCent, which is applying for a second round of National Science Foundation funding, is developing some of these new visualization tools. It also hosts working groups of scientists from diverse fields around the country who are eager to start putting the pieces together around some common questions.

“At this point, we’re not talking about the grand synthesis yet,” says Smith, who shares leadership of NESCent with colleagues at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University. “But we do have the potential for really understanding phylogeny,” the family tree of evolutionary history.

“We’re living in an era when we have so much information that we have to go back to a synthetic mode of thinking again, because we’re starting to lose the forest for the trees,” says Greg Wray, a professor of biology at Duke who sits on NESCent’s advisory board. “There are now so many trees that we can’t actually see how the pieces fit together anymore.”

On Feb. 21 in the Research Triangle Park, NESCent will hold its annual Darwin Day symposium: “Evolutionary Approaches to World Challenges” There is also a workshop for teachers on Feb.14.

– Karl Leif Bates is editor of Duke Research


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