LSU part of national Tree of Life effort

August 27, 2002

LSU's Museum of Natural Science has received $270,000 from the National Science Foundation's Tree of Life Panel to reconstruct the basic outline of the avian tree of life using nuclear DNA sequence comparisons.

The money is part of a $4 million grant split evenly between two groups of researchers and spread out over five years. LSU is working under the umbrella of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, as are the Smithsonian Institution, the University of Florida and Wayne State University in Detroit. The principal investigator for the project at the Field Museum is Shannon Hackett, who received her Ph.D. training in bird genetics at LSU.

The other group working on the project is headed by curators at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The two groups will coordinate their efforts, said Fred Sheldon, director of LSU's museum.

The NSF Tree of Life Project is an enormous effort to uncover the evolutionary history and characteristics of all groups of organisms. Over the next 10-15 years, a modern scientific view of the evolutionary tree that unites all organisms on Earth will be assembled and made available on the Internet.

The LSU Museum of Natural Science is a natural partner in such an endeavor because it possesses the world's largest collection of frozen bird tissues for genetic research, and the museum's curators are nationally recognized experts in bird evolution, said Sheldon. Each of the two groups participating in the study will compare about 25,000 nucleotides of DNA for each of 500 species of birds, or approximately 5 percent of all the bird species in the world. This amounts to 12.5 million nucleotides for each group. LSU is responsible for 10 percent of the sequences -- 1.25 million DNA nucleotides, he said.

The purpose of the project is to determine how the major groups of birds, such as ostriches, penguins, hawks, owls, flamingos and songbirds, are related to one another. Once these historical relationships are established, it will then be possible to reconstruct the evolution of bird behavior, morphology and ecology. Ultimately the goal is to understand the history of avian diversity.

Louisiana State University

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