One Tree to Rule Them All: Using DNA sequences to build a more complete Eagle phylogeny

Our second week of research has turned  out to be a little different than expected.  A campus wide power outage affected where and what we work on, but it hasn’t stopped our research.

On Monday, we gathered with other displaced Earlham science researchers at Roscoe’s Coffee Bar to work on finishing up designing primers for the giant beaver DNA extraction.  We need electricity and three consecutive days in the lab to perform the extraction, so this project was put on hold.  We did manage to set up the newest supplies in our ancient DNA lab despite the darkness.

The rest of the week was spent working on laptops along with other research groups in Stanley Annex I, one of the few places on campus with reliable power AND internet.  As we waited for the primers to get here and for full power to come back on in the lab, we have been hard at work on a phylogeny of booted eagles.  Booted eagles have feathers on their legs, like the golden eagle.  A phylogeny shows the evolution of a group of species and which species share a recent common ancestor.  These can be constructed by looking at the rate of DNA sequence mutations and applying various models of sequence evolution.

There have been a large number of genes sequenced for thirty-nine species of booted eagles, but all species and all genes have not been analyzed at once. We are working on the construction of a phylogeny that will be the “one tree to rule them all.”  It will help us identify distinct closely related groups of eagles that can be used to propose new genus names. Currently, genus names for booted eagles do not reflect their evolutionary history. That is, some species in the genus Aquila are more closely related to species in another genus, Hieraaetus, than they are to other Aquila species.
We have had many challenges compiling the massive amount of data that we retrieved. We started with creating a phylogenetic tree for each gene available and are continuing to create trees from data sets combining multiple genes. In the end, we will use all of these trees and DNA sequences to create the One Tree to Rule Them All. This final tree will include all species of booted eagles, which is 8 eagle species more than the most complete previous study. Our work will be written up for publication in collaboration with other booted eagle specialists.
By the end of the day Friday, generators supplied power to the lab, allowing us to get back in the lab on Monday. We’ll keep the eagle project going while we also start doing our Giant Beaver lab work this week.

Contributed by Rachel Wadleigh

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