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DeepTrees Report Summary

Project ID: 655661
Funded under: H2020-EU.1.3.2.

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - DeepTrees (Computational modelling of evolutionary dynamics in the deep sea)

Reporting period: 2015-11-01 to 2017-10-31

Summary of the context and overall objectives of the project

DeepTrees is developing accurate methods to compare living and fossil species diversity. The research focusses on marine invertebrates that have persisted through past mass extinction events: the survivors, found in large density in natural deep-sea communities on organic substrata, using samples already secured for this project. Therefore the scope of the project encompasses evolutionary biology, bioinformatics, and deep sea biology.

Human society is facing an accelerating loss of biodiversity. This is a significant threat, not only to wild places, but also to human health. We depend on the environment for consumable resources, but also the biotic interchange of large-scale environmental phenomena interact with climate in ways that are not fully understood. The modern extinction of species is frequently compared to past mass extinction events in earth's history; however, the metrics used to assess biotic change in the fossil record are substantially different to the living biota as the fossil record is far more data limited. These past extinction events, however, provide the best guide to accurately predict environmental responses to future and ongoing diversity loss. Developing strong, quantitatively robust comparisons between past, and present extinctions is imperative to understand the present diversity crisis.

A further, important task of this project, is to communicate among scientific disciplines, developing new ways to articulate the lessons of long-term evolutionary patterns in the fossil record to ecologists and environmental managers who work primarily in modern systems without formal training in palaeontology. This most important aim will be achieved through the publication of a new book.

Work performed from the beginning of the project to the end of the period covered by the report and main results achieved so far

The implementation of this project in University of California, Berkeley, Museum of Paleontology, has two important factors. First, the development of novel datasets to analyse morphological and genetic diversity of marine invertebrate species. This has been done through traditional methods and through collaboration with the nearby Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories, Advanced Light Source, using their micro-tomography synchrotron beamline. This has enabled three-dimensional modelling of structures inside mollusc shells never observed before. Second, these data feed into computational modelling approaches, exploring the impacts of variable speciation and extinction rates through deep time on the resulting diversity of species on earth today.

To date, the project has resulted in 20 public presentations at conferences and invited seminars, 8 papers published and available through open access, and 4 more papers already in review.

During the first phase of this project, to gather high-quality specimen material for analysis, Sigwart spend more than one month at sea on the Japanese research vessel Yokosuka and did a dive in a submersible to the bottom of the Indian Ocean, more than 3.3 km below the sea surface. The specimens gathered during that cruise, and collaborative experiments conducted onboard, directly contributed to the outputs of this action.

Now, data about living species diversity are being used to calibrate new computational models that simulate the evolution of species on earth, to develop new hypotheses about the interactions of speciation rates, extinction, and environmental change.

Progress beyond the state of the art and expected potential impact (including the socio-economic impact and the wider societal implications of the project so far)

During the first phase of the project, Sigwart has been seeking opportunities to engage with public understanding of science and popularise the results of the project. This has resulted in coverage on local television, online press, and social media.

In order to reach a broader academic audience, beyond the specialist field focussed on this research topic, Sigwart has secured an agreement from Taylor and Francis publishers to publish the results of the project in the form of a book.

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