Computer scientist Tandy Warnow, biologist Randy Linder and their graduate students have created an automated computing method, called SATé, that can analyze these molecular data from thousands of organisms, simultaneously figuring out how the sequences should be organized and computing their evolutionary relatedness in as little as 24 hours.Of course, as we have learned from previous experience, such a program likely relies on input objectivity. In 1985, Cann, Stoneking and Wilson produced the groundbreaking study based on mitochondrial DNA tree analysis that showed that modern humans had originated as a speciation event in sub-Saharan Africa between 140 k and 280 k years ago. While subsequent research into other areas of the genome has tended to support (at least nominally) that finding, it was later found by David Maddison and Alan Templeton that how the data was entered largely dictated what the results were. Put simply, the African sample was added to the algorithm first, followed by the other population samples. When the samples were randomized, thirteen different trees emerged that were equally parsimonious, some of which had Asian roots.
Previous simultaneous methods like Warnow and Linder's have been limited to analyzing 20 species or fewer and have taken months to complete.
"SATé could completely change the practice of making evolutionary trees and revolutionize our understanding of evolution," says Warnow, professor of computer science and lead author of the study.
Here's to hoping this is more objectively-based.
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