Thursday Extra: Algorithms for Assembling the Tree of Life

October 29 at 4:15 pm in Science 3821
Refreshments served at 4:00 pm in the CS Commons

Join us for a talk by David Fernández-Baca from the Department of Computer Science at Iowa State University. His talk is titled "Algorithms for Assembling the Tree of Life."

The Tree of Life is a reconstruction of the evolutionary history of all living species. Constructing this tree is one of the fundamental problems in science. At present, however, we are far from solving this problem. Instead, we must be content with building phylogenetic trees (that is, evolutionary trees) for relatively small families of species. Even trees of such limited scope have important uses. They help biologists to decipher the function of genes by comparing these genes to similar ones in closely related species. Ecologists use phylogenetic trees to estimate degrees of biodiversity and analyze rates of species extinction. In medicine, phylogenetic trees model disease progression. Phylogenetic trees are also used outside of biology, to understand the development of human languages and political systems.

This talk will discuss the work Fernández-Baca's group conducts in computational phylogenetics -- the field that studies the construction of phylogenetic trees. The aim of their research is to develop algorithms, mathematics, and software for phylogenetics. Much of the work addresses the computational problems that stem from the scarcity of data for building trees and the conflict among the data that is available. In addition to tackling algorithmic challenges, they also collaborate with biologists to study specific questions in biology. A recent example is applying phylogenetics to the study of legumes. This is a family of plants that are notable for their ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen -- a process that is essential for agriculture -- and that includes major food crops.

At the end of the talk, Fernández-Baca will give an overview of graduate study opportunities offered by the Computer Science Department at Iowa State University. The department has 31 faculty members covering a wide range of areas, including artificial intelligence, formal methods & verification, wireless networks and systems, robotics, software safety, software engineering, and theoretical computer science. The department participates in interdepartmental graduate programs in Bioinformatics and Computational Biology, Human-Computer Interaction, and Information Assurance. Almost all Ph.D. students are supported by research or teaching assistantships.