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Two OSU scientists researching new branch in Tree of Life

The Tree of Life is about to sprout a new branch. Two Ohio State scientists will lead research for the next branch in the National Science Foundation’s Assembling the Tree of Life project.

Daniel Janies, an associate professor in the College of Medicine, and Bill Ausich, a professor of earth sciences, will lead a team of researchers from 11 institutions in studying the echinoderms branch of the Tree of Life, Ausich said.

OSU received nearly $1 million in federal money for the project. The branch will be just one part of the larger Assembling the Tree of Life project. Timothy Collins, a program director in the systematic biology and biodiversity inventories cluster at the National Science Foundation, said the project is important because it studies how different life-forms are related.

“I think on one level, you might argue that there is nothing that is more fundamental about life than how it’s related,” Collins said.

The project provides important insight because it links all animal, plant and microbial life, Janies said.

“The idea is to connect all those in a tree-like structure, like a family tree,” Janies said.

The echinoderms, which are Janies and Ausich’s focus, include five living classes of animals — starfish, sea urchins, brittle stars, sea cucumbers and crinoids, commonly known as sea lilies. Ausich said the branch also includes 16 extinct classes of echinoderms.

Janies and Ausich said the echinoderms branch is especially important because it links the vertebrates, creatures with spinal columns, with the invertebrates, life-forms without spinal columns.

“Today it is essential to understand all aspects of biology within a group’s evolutionary history,” Ausich said in an e-mail. “This work will provide this important perspective for echinoderms and for the link between us and invertebrates.”

Janies, Ausich and other scientists hope their work will show important links between the echinoderms branch and the tree as a whole.

They also said this branch could offer biomedical applications in the future.

“Echinoderms are amazing creatures that have remarkable abilities to regenerate lost limbs, have unique types of ligamentary tissues, and have a uniquely constructed skeleton,” Ausich said. “The former two items are of interest to the medical field.”

Although his project is important to the Tree of Life, Janies said getting money from the National Science Foundation was not easy.

“It took a couple of tries,” Janies said.

Despite the initial setbacks, the foundation eventually selected the proposal to receive money. The project, which will cost almost $3 million, will begin in January.

OSU will receive $928,000 from the grant, Janies said.

Collins said the foundation chooses the best proposals to receive money, and the research on the echinoderms branch of the Tree of Life will make it easier to answer questions about evolution and ecology.

“They have put together a project that has been chosen as ‘outstanding science,'” Collins said.

Janies and Ausich are in charge of coordinating the other 13 scientists involved in the project, Janies said.

In addition to their research, Janies and Ausich wrote the first draft of the proposal and will also be involved in outreach, Ausich said.

But their main focus will be research. They will study fossils that are more than 500 million years old, as well as living species.

Janies is interested in starfish and the evolution of the larvae. Ausich will look at the evolution of the crinoids.

Despite their specializations, Janies and Ausich will focus on the big picture.

“We’re looking to find out how these five living classes are related,” Janies said, “and find out how they hook to the broader tree of life.” 

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