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Rewriting the tree of life with mathematics

Professors' Charles Semple (left) and Mike Steel (right). Photo provided

Professor Charles Semple and Professor Mike Steel of the University of Canterbury will apply mathematical models to the complex evolutionary tree of life, in order to understand how species evolve by combining and sharing genes, as well as branching away from each other

Published 2 November 2017

Charles Darwin viewed evolution as a branching treelike process, which gave rise to all the diversity of life on earth. This can be thought of as forks in the tree of life, with a branch of the tree representing where a single species splits to form several new species.

More recently, it has been discovered that non-treelike processes, such as hybridisation (combining the genes of two organisms) and lateral gene transfer (direct gene transfer from one organism to another, especially common in bacteria) also play a role in evolution. As a result, the simple notion of a tree is insufficient to understand the course of evolution. A major challenge in evolutionary biology is to unravel these complicated historical relationships. This area is called phylogenetics, and mathematics is an essential tool.

Professors Charles Semple and Mike Steel, both from the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Canterbury, have received a Marsden Fund grant to study the mathematics of evolutionary networks. This project will develop and apply new mathematical, statistical, and computational techniques to study evolutionary processes. These world-leading researchers will develop a new mathematical theory that can be used to tease out the tangled ancestral relationships buried within genetic data. They will explore how certain evolutionary processes behave, which will add to our understanding of how life on earth evolved.