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Employee Newsletter November 21, 2005 : Vol. 30, No. 7

Biologists to assemble 'tree of life'

Cnidarians' evolutionary pathways aim of research

KU evolutionary biologists have been awarded $1.6 million of a $2.85 million National Science Foundation grant to trace the evolutionary pathways of cnidarians (marine fauna) for the prestigious "Assembling the Tree of Life" project.

Paulyn Cartwright, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and research associate at the KU Natural History Museum; Daphne Fautin, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and curator at the museum; and Allen Collins, research associate at the museum, were awarded the five-year grant Oct. 1.

KU is the lead institution on the grant, which involves various research institutions across several states.

The NSF launched the Assembling the Tree of Life project in 2002 to help scientists across a range of disciplines construct a new framework for understanding the evolutionary relationships between all species.

The phrase "Tree of Life" comes from Charles Darwin. He wrote about the tree "with its ever-branching and beautiful ramifications." He speculated that all life forms are genetically related in a vast evolutionary tree.

Today, many branches of Darwin's tree remain unanalyzed, and the NSF's goal over the next 15 years is to support research to help the tree grow. Projects for Assembling the Tree of Life, according to NSF, are expected to be ambitious, large-scale and to involve multiple investigators from several disciplines, likely from numerous organizations, and to include training, outreach and dissemination components.

"The NSF gives funding to three to six groups a year for Tree of Life projects, so I am honored our research proposal for cnidarians was selected," Cartwright said. "It's a prestigious project for KU and the Natural History Museum to be involved with."

The research of Cartwright, Fautin and Collins specifically will focus on the phylum Cnidaria, which includes marine fauna such as jellyfish, sea anemones and corals.

Cnidarians diverged from the rest of the animals before the evolution of organs, making their overall anatomy quite simple, Cartwright said. Despite the simplicity, cnidarians have attained incredible diversity through history, comprising more than 11,000 species, many of which display elaborate structures and complex life histories.

Copyright 2005, an official employee publication from the Office of University Relations.


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