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Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Cataloguing every species on earth

By Colin Nickerson, Globe Staff

Spurred by fears that thousands of animals, plants, and microbes will disappear from the planet before scientists can properly study them, a consortium of world-famous research institutions and funding foundations tomorrow will launch an effort to compile an enormous, computer-based "Encyclopedia of Life" to catalog every species known or found.

"For biologists, this is equivalent to the moon shot or mapping the human genome in terms of complexity and scope," said Gary Borisy, director of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, which along with Harvard University is among the top players in a project that will be overseen by biologists but undertaken mainly by software designers and computer engineers.

The aim of a project expected to take a decade at a cost of $100 million is to create a gigantic computer data base containing detailed descriptions of each of 1.8 million "named" species -- that is, forms of life that have been identified by scientists.

Some species, like Elephas maximus (the Asian elephant) or Lumbricus terrestris (a common earthworm), are familiar to everybody and well-studied by biologists. But hundreds of thousands of species -- from microscopic fungi, to bottom dwellers from the deepest seas, to obscure desert beetles -- have simply been preserved on slides or specimen pins, given a Latin name, and assigned a tentative place on the tree of life, then stashed in a sample drawer and all but forgotten.

In addition, biologists believe that untold millions of species -- mainly microorganisms, but also insects, flowers, trees, and even a few reptiles and mammals -- have never been noticed by humans, much less scientifically recorded.

"Our ignorance is dangerous," said Edward O. Wilson, a pioneering researcher of global biodiversity, professor emeritus of entomology at Harvard, and long-time crusader for creation of an accessible encyclopedia of all life. "Life forms with which we've shared the planet are going extinct at an alarming rate -- usually before we even determine what they are and what role they play in the ecosystem. "Our knowledge of biodiversity is so incomplete that we are at risk of losing a great deal of it before it is even discovered."

The Encyclopedia of Life -- to be formally launched tomorrow in Washington, where it will be headquartered -- is envisioned as a computer-based, ever-expanding roster of all life forms that will give scientists an unprecedented means to help decide when they've encountered a new species. It should also provide an invaluable, publicly-accessible trove for everyone from bio-entrepreneurs to birdwatchers.

The encyclopedia's website -- www.eol.org -- contains only a few samples, but within a few years will describe hundreds of thousands of species.

Sample demonstration pages of the polar bear show what the scientists hope to do. It offers pictures, maps, research and data on the molecular biology, genetics, reproduction diet of the polar bear.

The information can be accessed at the "novice" level, which says: "Polar bears inhabit Arctic sea ice, water, islands and continental coastlines." At "expert" level, it says: Polar bears occur in low numbers throughout their range and are most abundant in shallow water areas near shore or where current or upwellings increase biological productivity near ice areas associated with open water, polynyas or lead systems."

The entries will include detail that might range from the color of a buzzard's tail feathers to toxins contained in a toadstool. The interactive encyclopedia will include photographs, maps, links to scientific studies and DNA sequences, anecdotes from amateur naturalists (clearly separated from expert opinion), sound, and video, when available. Eventually, the work will hold the equivalent of about 300 million pages of information.

"Imagine scientists working in a rain forest somewhere who find an unusual plant or fungus," said Jonathan Fanton, president of the MacArthur Foundation, which has donated $10 million to the encyclopedia and pledged another $10 million if the project meets early goals. "They'll be able go on-line and tap into this huge data base to find similar species. They'll be able to know right on the spot if they've made a real discovery."

Today, that process might require culling through museum collections or sifting through mounds of material from various sources.

The Sloan Foundation, another major donor, has fronted $2.5 million for the encyclopedia, while the Marine Biological Laboratory has developed new software that will allow for sophisticated scientific comparisons to be made between species, a technology that didn't even exist a few years ago. Along with Harvard, institutions contributing money and expertise to the project include the Smithsonian Institution, Chicago's Field Museum, and the Missouri Botanical Garden.

"This will be an extraordinary science tool," said James Edwards, a global biodiversity expert named as the encyclopedia's executive director. "It will enable researchers to better understand the complicated relationships between organisms on both the macro- and micro-scale."

Some scientists believe that life is veering towards a sixth "great extinction" since emerging on earth 3.8 million years ago. Unlike the earlier mass extinctions -- most famously the disappearance of dinosaurs -- the looming die-off seems to be caused by human activity, mainly destruction of natural habitat and carbon dioxide emissions contributing to climate change.

Building the encyclopedia will fall mainly to software designers and computer engineers, with old-style field scientists -- like Harvard's Wilson, who won his reputation tracking down unknown species of ants in remote rain forests -- serving mainly to ensure the accuracy and quality of entered information.

"It's really more of a communications project than a discovery project," said Edwards. "It's integrating information so that anyone and everyone can access it, from a frontline scientist to a high school teacher to a farmer trying to figure whether a certain worm in the soil is friend or foe."

And that's just fine with Wilson.

"This effort is just so important to understanding life on our unknown planet," he said. "We are never going to have a mature science of ecology if we don't even know the species in the ecosystem."

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Posted by Karen Weintraub at 07:54 PM
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