University Museums

Title: 96 Variations on a Phylogenetic Tree
Name: Installation
Date: 2018
Medium: Stainless Steel Ball Chain and Paint.
Country/Culture: American
Classification: Sculpture
Credit Line: Commissioned by the University Museums and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. An Iowa Art in State Buildings Project for the Biosciences Facilities - Bessy Hall Addition. In the Art on Campus Collection, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa.
Location: Iowa State University, Bessey Hall, Addition
Object Number: U2018.212
More Information
96 Variations on a Phylogenetic Tree depicts some of the central and important themes of biology: the inter-connectedness of all life, and the evolutionary process that develops new and divergent lineages. This installation presents the concepts of organismal evolution in a series of branching lineages, generally known as The Tree of Life, in which all living organisms are shown to be related to one another in the pattern of branches and divergences.

The vertical segments at the bottom of the tree represent the origin of life and the Last Universal Common Ancestor of all known life on earth. The divergence of this lineage into the three primary domains of life is shown in the major branches of the south, central, and north parts of the installation, with variations in color helping to accentuate the different domains.

Domain Eubacteria: The primarily orange major branch to the south. A lineage of decomposers, pathogens, cyanobacteria, and other related unicellular lineages without nuclei.

Domain Archaea: The center major branch. A group of unicellular organisms, without nuclei, that live in extreme environments such as oceanic deep thermal vents and volcanic areas (which are normally uninhabitable by other life forms), with abilities to live under high heat, high salt concentrations, and involving metabolism of sulfur compounds and methane.

Domain Eukaryota: The north branch. The largest lineage is made up of organisms with true, membrane-bound nuclei, membrane-bound organelles, and other advanced characteristics of their cells, metabolism, and life cycles. This lineage includes the many groups of Protists , and the advanced multicellular lineages derived from them – Fungi, Animals, and Plants.

96 Variations on a Phylogenetic Tree was developed through computer modeling of the shapes resulting from interconnected catenaries that produce a representation of the Tree of Life. Each change of the design parameters produced slightly new variants of the Tree’s branching positions. After 96 iterations of this process, the variants were combined spatially, resulting in the colored “surfaces” along each lineage. The work of art is formed from approximately 5.5 miles (over 29,000 feet) of painted stainless steel ball chain that was cut into 20,093 unique segments and assembled into the catenary form suspended from two points.