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Call it yet another biological gold rush. When Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, scientists began working in earnest to document the world's plant and animal species and build a phylogeny - a map of how all those species relate to each other. More scientists came to the discipline in the 1980s, when automated DNA sequencing offered a way to classify species and applications for phylogenetics. Thanks to such efforts, at least a small sample of genetic code is on file in databases worldwide for some 100,000 of Earth's organisms. The largest such database, GenBank, contains more than 42.7 million genetic sequences, and counting. But scientists have yet to realize Darwin's phylogeny; they've sampled genes piecemeal - a rice gene here, a mouse protein there - and have connected relatively few species. Today, the prospectors in the gold rush are those with enough expertise in computing to connect all that genetic data in a meaningful way. The goal is the same as it was 150 years ago: build the ultimate family tree.
Date of Publication: May-June 2005