San Diego Supercomputer Maps Bird Evolution

Extensive DNA analysis for 363 species leads to a more accurate family tree

An international team of scientists working at the San Diego Supercomputing Center have developed a tree “delineating 93 million years of evolutionary relationships between 363 bird species, representing 92% of all bird families.” The research is detailed in complementary papers appearing in Nature and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS). The research is part of the Bird 10,000 Genomes (B10K) project.

The researchers used the power of supercomputing to sample and compare a large number of genes for a large number of species. According to the story at the UC San Diego website, “At the heart of these studies lies a suite of algorithms known as ASTRAL," which the lab "developed to infer evolutionary relationships with unprecedented scalability, accuracy and speed. By harnessing the power of these algorithms, the team integrated genomic data from over 60,000 genomic regions, providing a robust statistical foundation for their analyses. The researchers then examined the evolutionary history of individual segments across the genome. From there, they pieced together a mosaic of gene trees, which were then compiled into a comprehensive species tree.”

The analysis even solved some mysteries that have vexed ornithologists. For instance, doves and flamingos were previously thought to be closely related (due to an unchanged section of the DNA), however, a comprehensive study of 363 species revealed that they were more distant cousins and the shared block of DNA was also shared with many other bird species.