Understanding Evolution

The Tree Room :

Trees matter: How phylogenetics helps solve practical problems
by the Understanding Evolution team

Evolutionary trees help us solve practical problems.
Evolutionary trees help us solve practical problems.
Evolutionary trees appear mainly in textbooks, museum exhibits, and the like — testaments to the central role of phylogenetics in modern biology. We don't see trees in doctors' offices, on signs at nature preserves, or in the police blotter of local papers. But perhaps we should. Phylogenetics is not just an esoteric exercise in pure science but has practical applications as well. Want to double-check that the meat you're buying in the supermarket is what the label says it is, or find new drugs for treating cancer, or figure out how to protect endangered species? To answer these questions and many more, scientists turn to phylogenetics, which allows them to reconstruct the evolutionary histories of living things. How does this information help us solve real-world problems? Explore the following topics to find out:

  • Disease detectives. Using trees to identify unfamiliar species has helped us understand the origins of many diseases.

  • Tomato tinkering. Using trees to find wild relatives of domestic species has helped us improve important crops.

  • Evolutionary matchmaking. Using trees to find relatives of endangered species can help us better conserve these species.

  • Drug discovery. Using trees to determine which species are likely to have inherited a particular trait has pointed the way towards new medications.

  • Defending diversity. Using trees to identify sets of species with particular sorts of evolutionary histories may help us better conserve ecosystems.

  • CSI Evolution. Using trees to determine when particular lineage-splitting events happened has helped defend innocent people in court and uncover the true roots of deadly diseases.

  • Trees as tools. As well as having practical applications, evolutionary trees can change the way we look at the world around us.

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Fish market photo by Junho Jung at Flickr from South Korea (http://www.flickr.com/photos/phploveme/3506612840) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Tiger photo by S. Taheri, edited by Fir0002 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
Pills photo by Pöllö (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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