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Elizabeth Cooney is a health reporter for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
Boston Globe Health and Science staff:
Karen Weintraub, Deputy Health and Science Editor, and Gideon Gil, Health and Science Editor.
Short White Coat blogger Ishani Ganguli
Short White Coat blogger Jennifer Srygley
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.
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.
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."
"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.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.