Celebrating Darwin's birthday with a cookie Tree of Life

It was just a little over a week ago that we celebrated Darwin Day here in the Department of Biology at NC State. We toasted the life and accomplishments of Charles Darwin, father of evolution, by partaking in birthday cake and chomping down cookies in shapes representing the many diverse branches (both alive and extinct) of the Tree of Life.

Thanks to the leaps-and-bounds technical advances in genetic sequencing and high-power computing, our understanding of the evolutionary tree of life (known in scientific circles as a phylogeny or phylogenetic tree) has come a long way from the form Darwin first sketched in his notebook over 150 years ago.

Darwin's first pass at the Tree of Life (Credit: Wikipedia)

And although the tree’s shape – and the ways we have come to know how to render that shape – have evolved through time, its larger meaning remains the same: all life on Earth shares a common genetic history. Species change and evolve through time, yet remain linked to their ancestors in the past by their DNA, their proteins, their morphology, and their development.

A modern interpretation of the Tree of Life (Credit: TOL Web Project)

The Tree of Life provides a framework, a way of thinking about and investigating questions in biology, from asking why certain groups of plants are more likely to be invasive species to understanding when and how humans evolved the ability to digest milk.

Some scientists get SO excited about the Tree of Life that they are inspired to do wacky thing … like cooking it. Dr. Roland Kays, the new Biodiversity and Earth Observation Director at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences Nature Research Center, recently brought the tradition he started at the New York State Museum to Raleigh. In the spirit of Darwin’s birthday, Roland and Chef Josh DeCarolis from Jujube in Chapel Hill joined forces to highlight the evolution of chili peppers in a Science-meets-Kitchen-Stadium-style presentation.

One of the goals of our work here at Your Wild Life is to challenge you to think about the species you interact with in your daily life. We’ll ask you to investigate the dark corners of your basement and sample the microbes hiding in plain sight on your refrigerator shelf. In return, we’ll share stories – old and new – about the species living on us, in us and around us who shape who we are and the world we live in.

So why not think about these stories in the context of the Tree of Life?

To that end, Rob Dunn – whose popular writings and book, The Wild Life of Our Bodies, has really inspired our work here – offers you a ‘Table of Evolutionary Contents’ (below). Here you can explore how the “ever branching and beautiful ramifications” of the Tree of Life (Darwin’s eloquent way of describing the diversity of life in the Origin of Species) intersect with your daily life.

Table of Evolutionary Contents

Bacteria (on Lady Gagaon feetin bathrooms, as influenced by antimicrobial wipesas probioticsin the appendix)

Yeast, (including the kind that produces penicillin and alcohol)

Dust mites, 6-legged basement dwellerslice, bedbugshouseflies

Chickens, pigeons and urban gardens, house sparrows (to be published next week, stay tuned)

The hamster, field mice, the cow, animal predators

And more!

For now, your Table of Evolutionary Contents is just a running list. But never fear, we’re mustering up our creative juices to represent it in tree-form. Stay-tuned.