May 10, 2007 21:19
Scientists have announced they have begun assembling an Internet catalog of every living thing on Earth. The organizers say the new website will become the single location where researchers can go to study the nearly 2 million known plant and animal species. This so-called Encyclopedia of Life is expected to be a major help to scientists in developing countries.
An electronic Encyclopedia of Life has long been a goal of researchers. They say it is possible only now because of advances in Internet technology, high resolution digital photography, and the ability to quickly read the genetic codes of species.
"I almost cannot put into words how exciting this development is for scientists, citizens around the world, and me in particular," said James Edwards, the Executive Secretary for the Global Biodiversity Information Center, based in Copenhagen, Denmark. He is the Encyclopedia of Life's first Executive Director.
"Once completed, the encyclopedia will provide scientists, students, and all citizens with multimedia access to all known living species, even those that have just been discovered," he added.
The project is a collaboration of six scientific organizations, including the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, Harvard University near Boston, and Chicago's Field Museum. But organizers say they hope to gain the participation of institutions around the world.
One of the intellectual forces behind the project is renowned Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, who says only about 10 percent of all living things are currently known.
"Our lives depend upon this largely unknown living world that we now propose to understand more fully," he said. "Humanity exists, in other words, on a little known planet. What knowledge we have is scattered all through very technical literature. It is hard to obtain. It is usually available to and known about by a limited number of experts."
Wilson says The Encyclopedia of Life will change that, and in so doing, will advance the discovery of new species that could be adaptable to agriculture and medicine. He points out that it will let scientists better anticipate disease outbreaks and the encroachment of invasive plants and animals.
"Only with such encyclopedic knowledge can biology as a whole mature as a science and acquire predictive power," he added. "Never again need we overlook so many golden opportunities in the living world around us or be so often surprised by the sudden appearance of destructive aliens that spring from that little-known world."
The Encyclopedia of Life will cost $50 million to develop, with support from the six founding institutions and two U.S. charitable foundations. One of the charities is the MacArthur Foundation, whose president, Jonathan Fanton, says researchers worldwide will be able to contribute their knowledge to the website. He predicts that the project will be a boon to science in low income countries.
"The Encyclopedia of Life has clear utility for information sharing, especially in developing nations, where access to science is very limited. I think it is fair to say this could be a revolution for science in the developing world," said Fanton.
Encyclopedia executive director Edwards says the goal is to catalog 1 million species, a little more than half of those known, in five years. It is accessible at http://www.eol.org.
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