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.
-end-
Contact:
Extraordinary Prof. Uwe Hoßfeld
Research Group Didactics of Biology
Friedrich Schiller University Jena
Am Steiger 3, 07743 Jena
Germany
Phone: +49 3641 / 949491
Email: uwe.hossfeld[at]uni-jena.de

Friedrich-Schiller-Universitaet Jena

Related Organisms Articles:

New NMR technique offers 'molecular window' into living organisms
NMR Technique developed at U of T Scarborough has potential for noninvasive disease diagnosis using current MRI technology.
Evolving 'lovesick' organisms found survival in sex
Being 'lovesick' takes on a whole new meaning in a new theory which answers the unsolved fundamental question: why do we have sex?
Micro-organisms will help African farmers: Soil microbes to the rescue
Sorghum is the fifth most important cereal in the world.
Decreasing antibiotic use can reduce transmission of multidrug-resistant organisms
Reducing antibiotic use in intensive care units by even small amounts can significantly decrease transmission of dangerous multidrug-resistant organisms, according to new research published online today in Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology, the journal of the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America.
Miniature organisms in the sand play big role in our ocean
In the Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, Jeroen Ingels, a researcher at the FSU Coastal and Marine Laboratory, explains that small organisms called meiofauna that live in the sediment provide essential services to human life such as food production and nutrient cycling.
Tiny organisms with a massive impact
Although diatoms are incredibly small, they have a significant impact on the dispersal of nutrients and trace elements in global marine waters.
A new path to fixing genes in living organisms
A gene-editing method shows promise for using targeted gene-replacement therapy in living organisms.
Mechanism of successful horizontal gene transfer between divergent organisms explained
University of Tsukuba-led researchers showed how a host's gene regulatory environment can facilitate the establishment of a gene newly arrived via horizontal transfer.
The effects of pesticides on soil organisms are complex
There are significant interactions between soil management factors, including pesticide application, with respect to effects on soil organisms.
The oceans are full of barriers for small organisms
Subtle and short-lived differences in ocean salinity or temperature function as physical barriers for phytoplankton, and result in a patchy distribution of the oceans' most important food resource.

Related Organisms Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Digital Manipulation
Technology has reshaped our lives in amazing ways. But at what cost? This hour, TED speakers reveal how what we see, read, believe — even how we vote — can be manipulated by the technology we use. Guests include journalist Carole Cadwalladr, consumer advocate Finn Myrstad, writer and marketing professor Scott Galloway, behavioral designer Nir Eyal, and computer graphics researcher Doug Roble.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#530 Why Aren't We Dead Yet?
We only notice our immune systems when they aren't working properly, or when they're under attack. How does our immune system understand what bits of us are us, and what bits are invading germs and viruses? How different are human immune systems from the immune systems of other creatures? And is the immune system so often the target of sketchy medical advice? Those questions and more, this week in our conversation with author Idan Ben-Barak about his book "Why Aren't We Dead Yet?: The Survivor’s Guide to the Immune System".