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Question Sheet: Assembling the Tree of Life


Before reading:

  1. What's a family tree? 
  2. Why is evolution an important theory in science?

During reading:

  1. What is the aim of the Tree of Life Project? 
  2. Scott Lanyon says, "There are many, many things we can understand better if

    we realize that the organism we're looking at doesn't exist in a vacuum." What

    does he mean? 

  3. How many known species are there in the world? How many more species remain

    to be discovered? 

  4. How has DNA changed our understanding of how species have evolved? 
  5. How does the example of the Pacific yew tree illustrate the importance of

    the Tree of Life Project? 

  6. How might science teachers be able to use the Tree of Life Web Project site?

After reading:

  1. Why do scientists often study just one particular animal or plant? How would

    the Tree of Life Project help such scientists? 

  2. Besides the ways mentioned in the article, in what other ways could the Tree

    of Life Project benefit science and medicine? See www.nsf.gov/bio/pubs/reports/atol.pdf (National Science


  3. Go to the Tree of Life Web project site at tolweb.org/tree/. Select one of

    the species profiles featured at the site. Why is this particular plant or

    animal of interest? What additional information about this species would it be

    helpful to have? 

  4. The following Web sites have information about evolution: evolution.berkeley.edu (University of California, Berkeley), www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution (PBS), and www.bbc.co.uk/education/darwin(BBC). What is the main focus of each site? In what ways are they similar? In what ways are they different? Which one did you find most useful or interesting? Why? 
  5. Computers have an important role to play in the Tree of Life project. In

    building a giant database of all known species, what problems do scientists and

    mathematicians face? See dimacs.rutgers.edu/People/Staff/froberts/TreeofLife3-11-03.ppt (Rutgers University).


One major part of the Tree of Life Project involves mapping the family tree of flies. See www.inhs.uiuc.edu/cee/FLYTREE/ and www.inhs.uiuc.edu/cee/FLYTREE/press.html. Who heads this project? What other countries besides the United States are involved in this effort? Why is an international effort required for such a project?


  1. Select one particular species. Write a poem or short essay about why this

    particular type of animal or plant is interesting to you. 

  2. Go to the Tree of Life Web project site at tolweb.org/tree/. Write a

    review of the Web site. What did you like about it? What did you dislike about

    it? What was missing? How would you improve it?


There are at least 1.7 million named species. If Earth has about 10 million species altogether, how many more remain to be discovered? If scientists around the world identified 100 new species per day, how long would it take to catalog all species on Earth?

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