Dee Shore, CALS
Communication Services, 919/513-3117
Heads $2.4 Million Project to Map Flies’ Family
international research team headed by a North Carolina
State University entomologist has won a $2.4 million
grant to fill a tall order – the order Diptera,
part of a massive National Science Foundation-funded
effort called Assembling the Tree of Life, the team
is creating a better picture of the evolutionary and
genetic ties that link some 125,000 fly species that
make up the order. The Tree of Life project –
rooted in Charles Darwin’s concept that all of
life, from the smallest microorganism to the largest
vertebrate, is genetically connected – aims to
pull together a family tree for all 1.7 million known
Brian Wiegmann, an associate professor in NC State’s
of Entomology, heads the team selected to assemble
the fly Tree of Life. His collaborators include entomologists,
biologists and geneticists from every continent. The
researchers will create a picture of the historical
relationships, explaining similarities and differences
among flies, mosquitoes, gnats and midges since the
first ones emerged 250 million years ago.
they assemble the fly tree, the researchers also will
train a large number of undergraduate and postgraduate
students in Australia, Canada, the United States and
Singapore. They also plan to share their findings with
educators and others through a Web site.
co-principal investigators in the five-year project
are Drs. David Yeates, with Australia’s Commonwealth
Scientific and Industrial Research Organization; Rudolf
Meier, of the National University of Singapore; Gregory
W. Courtney, of Iowa State University; and Markus Friedrich,
of Wayne State University.
scientists and their collaborators will use a combination
of genetic data, computer modeling and morphology –
information on a species’ form and structure –
to figure out where the insects fit into life’s
team also includes taxonomists and data management experts,
including F. Christian Thompson, of the U.S. Department
of Agriculture’s Systematic Entomology Laboratory,
and Gail Kampmeier, of the Illinois Natural History
Survey. They will create the kind of shortcuts needed
to make sense of a huge amount of fly data, helping
link names and relationships with fossil records, morphological
studies and modern genetic maps.
said that information gleaned from the study could have
implications for human health, food security and conservation.
Flies transmit some of the worst viruses infecting people
and animals, and they also take a heavy toll on crops.
the questions that the Tree of Life can help answer:
why some mosquitoes can transmit viruses like those
that cause malaria, West Nile and dengue fever, while
others can’t, and how certain species have become
resistant to insecticides.
tree will also provide information for protecting the
environment and advancing our understanding of genetics.
Fruit flies have long been the model species for genetics
research, and flies are ecologically important, pollinating
plants and decomposing waste.
Yeates, an Australian entomologist, “A big part
of biodiversity is actually ‘flyodiversity.’
Of nearly 2 million living species known to science
– and there are many more yet to be discovered
– around 10 percent are flies, or Diptera, of
believes the Tree of Life project will help scientists
get a better grasp of that diversity at a time when
it is changing rapidly.
is such a diverse place, and we know relatively little
about most organisms and what leads to changes over
time,” Wiegmann says. “Because of advances
in computer speed and genomics, we have the technology
to generate and organize an amazing amount of information
into a broader framework that can help us understand
this fragile and constantly changing diversity and its