Nav: Home

The tree of life has its roots in Jena

December 01, 2016

Jena (Germany) How can we depict diversity? Biologists of the 19th century faced this question as they became aware not only of the huge variety of plant and animal species, but also of the connections between these species. Ultimately it was the acclaimed German biologist Ernst Haeckel who provided the answer.

Drawing on Darwin's theory of evolution, Haeckel created the first Darwinian phylogenetic 'tree of life' of organisms exactly 150 years ago in Jena, and published it in his major work, the 'General morphology of organisms'. In the current issue of the journal Nature, the historians of science and science education, Prof. Uwe Hoßfeld und Dr. habil. Georgy S. Levit of Friedrich Schiller University Jena in Germany, commemorate this anniversary.

"The idea of visually representing species and their development was already known at the time," says Levit. "However, earlier ideas never took into account the principle of monophyly and natural selection in speciation." This connection first emerged through the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin. The British naturalist sketched in his diary an idea for a tree of life in 1837 and presented it in the form of a diagram in his ground-breaking work 'On the origin of species' in 1859. Haeckel took up Darwin's theory of evolution in his 1866 book, 'General morphology of organisms', and drew the first phylogenetic 'family tree of organisms', or tree of life. "Phylogeny is the evolutionary history of organisms," explains Hoßfeld. "Because Haeckel was the first actually to define this term, in that same work, he was also the only person capable of representing the first tree of life of this kind." To be more precise, Haeckel designed the monophyletic tree of life, because it shows all three kingdoms - animals, plants and Protista (organisms that cannot be classified as a plant, animal or fungus) - arising from a common root ('Moneren Radix').

Jena linguist also inspired Haeckel

However, it was not only Darwin who influenced Haeckel's creation. He was also inspired by a linguist who was his colleague and friend in Jena. "As early as 1863, the linguist August Schleicher created a first 'family tree' to represent the development of Indo-Germanic languages," says Hoßfeld. "Ernst Haeckel eventually adopted this form of visualisation."

No better method has been devised to date for illustrating biodiversity. New techniques and methodologies may have come into use, and trees of life are now presented as cladograms, diagrams, etc., but the principle remains the same. "It is quite simply the best and clearest way of representing the results of biological research in this area," notes Hoßfeld.

The two Jena-based science historians are particularly pleased that such a renowned scientific journal as Nature is marking this anniversary and Haeckel's achievement. "For us it is always a success when our scientific fields attract the attention they deserve," says Hoßfeld, who has seen six of his articles published in Nature. "It shows us that there continues to be great interest in the history of science and science education, and that they are repeatedly able to make a contribution to current debate," adds Levit, who has had three publications in the British journal. For Friedrich Schiller University itself, such publications are evidence that Jena's long academic tradition is consistently able to produce up-to-the-minute research.
Extraordinary Prof. Uwe Hoßfeld
Research Group Didactics of Biology
Friedrich Schiller University Jena
Am Steiger 3, 07743 Jena
Phone: +49 3641 / 949491
Email: uwe.hossfeld[at]

Friedrich-Schiller-Universitaet Jena

Related Organisms Articles:

Fungicides as an underestimated hazard for freshwater organisms
Large amounts of fungicides, used in agriculture, leak into nearby surface waters.
FEFU scientist reported on concentration of pesticides in marine organisms
According to ecotoxicologist from Far Eastern Federal University (FEFU), from the 90s and during 2000s in the tissues of Russian Far Eastern mussels the concentration of organochlorine pesticides (OCPs) that had been globally used in agriculture in the mid-twentieth century has increased about ten times.
How genes interact to build tissues and organisms
A group of scientists at the National Centre for Genomic Analysis (CNAG-CRG) from the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG), in Barcelona, Spain, led by Holger Heyn, developed a new computational tool, based on the mathematical Graph theory, to infer global, large-scale regulatory networks, from healthy and pathological organs, such as those affected by diabetes or Alzheimer's disease.
Coastal organisms trapped in 99-million-year-old amber
Most amber inclusions are organisms that lived in the forest.
Southern Ocean acidification puts marine organisms at risk
New research co-authored by University of Alaska indicates that acidification of the Southern Ocean will cause a layer of water to form below the surface that corrodes the shells of some sea snails.
Using tiny organisms to unlock big environmental mysteries
Biological processes that influence climate and the environment, such as carbon fixation or nitrogen recycling are parts of these planet-wide processes are actually driven by the tangible actions of organisms at every scale of life, beginning at the smallest: the microorganisms living in the air, soil, and water.
Artificial intelligence can identify microscopic marine organisms
Researchers have developed an artificial intelligence (AI) program that can automatically provide species-level identification of microscopic marine organisms.
Why deep oceans gave life to the first big, complex organisms
Why did the first big, complex organisms spring to life in deep, dark oceans where food was scarce?
Billions of nanoplastics accumulate in marine organisms within six hours
A ground-breaking study has shown it takes a matter of hours for billions of minute plastic nanoparticles to become embedded throughout the major organs of a marine organism.
Sex or food? Decision-making in single-cell organisms
Unicellular diatoms are able to adapt their behavior to different external stimuli based on an evaluation of their own needs.
More Organisms News and Organisms Current Events

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2019.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Why do we revere risk-takers, even when their actions terrify us? Why are some better at taking risks than others? This hour, TED speakers explore the alluring, dangerous, and calculated sides of risk. Guests include professional rock climber Alex Honnold, economist Mariana Mazzucato, psychology researcher Kashfia Rahman, structural engineer and bridge designer Ian Firth, and risk intelligence expert Dylan Evans.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#540 Specialize? Or Generalize?
Ever been called a "jack of all trades, master of none"? The world loves to elevate specialists, people who drill deep into a single topic. Those people are great. But there's a place for generalists too, argues David Epstein. Jacks of all trades are often more successful than specialists. And he's got science to back it up. We talk with Epstein about his latest book, "Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World".
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dolly Parton's America: Neon Moss
Today on Radiolab, we're bringing you the fourth episode of Jad's special series, Dolly Parton's America. In this episode, Jad goes back up the mountain to visit Dolly's actual Tennessee mountain home, where she tells stories about her first trips out of the holler. Back on the mountaintop, standing under the rain by the Little Pigeon River, the trip triggers memories of Jad's first visit to his father's childhood home, and opens the gateway to dizzying stories of music and migration. Support Radiolab today at