+ Encyclopedia of All Life — Immense New Database

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In an urgent quest to find and catalog every species on Earth, a consortium of Institutions from Harvard and the Smithsonian to the Atlas of Living Australia has begun compiling The Encyclopedia of Life.

In an Op-Ed piece in the NY Times, Edward Wilson, an emeritus professor of biology at Harvard, says

In one sense we know much less about Earth than we do about Mars.  The vast majority of life forms on our planet are still undiscovered, and their significance for our own species remains unknown.  This gap is a serious matter: we will never completely understand and preserve the living world around us at our present level of ignorance.  We are flying blind into our environmental future.

Biologists have found and given Latinized names to about 1.8 million species of plants, animals and microorganisms since Carl Linnaeus inaugurated the modern system of classification two and a half centuries ago.  This is very impressive, but it is probably 10 percent or less than the total. 

A rough estimate of the number of species that remain to be discovered ranges from 10 million to more than 100 million.

Why Bother?

According to Wilson

Each species from a bacterium to a whale is a masterpiece of evolution.  Each has persisted, its mix of genes slowly evolving, for thousands to millions of years.  And each is exquisitely adapted to its environment and interlocks with the legion of other species to form the ecosystem upon which our own lives ultimately depend.  We need to properly explore Earth’s biodiversity if we are to understand, preserve and manage it.

Because of recent advances in technology and science, it is now possible to compile and enlarge this Encyclopedia of Life.  Nucleic acid sequencing has made it possible to decode the complete genetic code of any organism : a single viral or bacterial species can be decoded in hours.  (Wilson calls the immense world of microorganisms “the dark matter of the biosphere”.)

The Encyclopedia will have infinitely extendable pages for each species and provide links as needed.  It will provide whatever is known of the species from its DNA to its place in the environment, as well as its importance to humanity.  It will ensure that existing knowledge is freely available to anyone, everywhere, at any time.

The benefits will be practical immediately.  For example, the discovery of wild plant species adaptable for agriculture can be speeded up.  Disease-causing bacteria and viruses may be discovered before they can cause harm.

But it is crucial to move quickly, says Wilson.  Ecosystems and species are disappearing due to habitat destruction, pollution, overpopulation and excessive hunting and fishing — not to mention invasive species like fire ants, zebra mussels, bacteria and viruses.  And human-caused climate change could eliminate one fourth of all species during the next fifty years.

We must stop the disappearnace, if we can, of a large part of the living environment.  If we don’t, huge potential stores of scientific information will never exist.  Novel classes of pharmaceuticals and future crops will be thrown away.  Activity such as water purification, soil renewal and pollination approximately equal to the world gross domestic product will be diminished.

So this is science with a deadline.  A goal has been set to organize and enter all the basic information on the already known 1.8 million species within ten years.  The timetable is ambitious, but according to Wilson, “It is important to establish the project as big science, on par with the human genome project  — a prioity of biology that is ultimately supported with both government and private financing and with the participation of scientists worldwide.” 

Even a partial succes will be of incalculable value to humanity — to the rest of life — for all time.

sole source: NYT Op-Ed piece on 9/6/07 by Edward O Wilson.  He is the author, most recently, of “The Creation: An Appeal To Save Life on Earth.”

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