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2008

The Encyclopedia of Life, No Bookshelf Required
The New York Times, February 26, 2008

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Imagine the Book of All Species: a single volume made up of one-page descriptions of every species known to science. On one page is the blue-footed booby. On another, the Douglas fir. Another, the oyster mushroom. If you owned the Book of All Species, you would need quite a bookshelf to hold it. Just to cover the 1.8 million known species, the book would have to be more than 300 feet long. And you’d have to be ready to expand the bookshelf strikingly, because scientists estimate there are 10 times more species waiting to be discovered.

It sounds surreal, and yet scientists are writing the Book of All Species. Or to be more precise, they are building a Web site called the Encyclopedia of Life (www.eol.org). On Thursday its authors, an international team of scientists, will introduce the first 30,000 pages, and within a decade, they predict, they will have the other 1.77 million.

While many of those pages may be sparse at first, the authors hope that the world’s scientific community will pool all of its knowledge on the pages. Unlike a page of paper, a page of the Encyclopedia of Life can hold as much information as scientists can upload. “It’s going to have everything known on it, and everything new is going to be added as we go along,” said Edward O. Wilson, the Harvard biologist who spearheaded the Encyclopedia of Life and now serves as its honorary chairman.

Other experts not involved in the project hail it as tremendously promising. “I certainly think it is a great idea,” said Jody Hey, a biologist at Rutgers University.

Yet a number of researchers wonder if it will reach its final goal. The encyclopedia is not the first attempt to catalog every species on the planet, and previous efforts have failed. “I have seen 20 years of good ideas go nowhere,” said Daniel Brooks, a University of Toronto biologist.

Dr. Wilson has been involved with some of those failed attempts. But in the past few years major advances in databases have made the goal more realistic. Today biologists can consult databases that hold DNA sequences from hundreds of thousands of species, for example. There are also more detailed databases about groups of species, like mammals, fungi and parasites. In 2003, Dr. Wilson wrote a paper in which he called for all that information to be available in one place.

He and his colleagues then persuaded the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to contribute money to a consortium of universities, museums and scientific institutions. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and some of the partners are adding money as well. The encyclopedia will have a budget of about $50 million in its first five years.

When Dr. Wilson and his colleagues announced the start of the Encyclopedia of Life last May, their site was little more than a few mocked-up pages. Behind the scenes, designers at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., were busy building a system for getting scientific information online fast.

“If we had sat down at a blank screen and started to write, word by word, preparing the encyclopedia would have been virtually impossible,” said James Edwards, the project’s executive director.

The designers wrote software that could automatically draw information maps, DNA sequences, bird songs, photographs, evolutionary trees, and so on from many sources and organize them in one place in one standard format. Ten of the biggest natural history libraries in the world are scanning millions of pages of scientific literature, which computers are text-mining to add more information to species pages.

“The actual development has astonished me,” Dr. Wilson said. “I thought we’d be talking about it and pushing it for a long time.”

The version of the encyclopedia to be introduced Thursday is far from the finished product, Dr. Edwards warned. “It’s going to be rough,” he said. “We’re releasing early to get feedback from people.”

The 30,000 species in the first version will come mainly from databases of fish, amphibians and plants. Experts also created 24 detailed “exemplar” pages, to show just how much information the encyclopedia can handle. Those pages include well-studied species like the yellow fever mosquito, the eastern white pine and the death-cap mushroom.

The researchers wanted to make the site useful to scientists and nonscientists, so they created a sliding button that readers can move to choose how much detail they want. They are also developing ways of manipulating the information to make it useful in many ways.

“You’ll be able to download a personalized field guide,” Dr. Edwards said. “You can say, ‘I’m going to go to this preserve in Thailand what do we know about what might be there?’ ”

Scientists, meanwhile, will be able to use the Encyclopedia of Life to do original research. One team of scientists is already planning to compare how different species grow old in order to understand the biology of aging.

Experts on biodiversity are generally excited about the site. “The Encyclopedia of Life is a fantastic and long overdue project,” said Quentin D. Wheeler, the director of the International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University. But, he said, “my concern is about the content, and where the content will come from.”

The ranks of taxonomists the scientists who describe species and revise old descriptions have been shrinking steadily for decades.

“We have not given enough thought to the people who provide the information on which the Encyclopedia of Life is built,” Dr. Edwards acknowledged. “We are looking into ways to keep that community going.”

Dr. Wilson hopes the Encyclopedia of Life will foster the growth of that group. For the past 60 years, he has been studying ants, and in May he and other ant experts will be meeting at Harvard to plan how they can take advantage of the Encyclopedia of Life.

The goal he would like them to set would be to add all 14,000 known species of ants to the encyclopedia, and then add all the unknown ones perhaps an additional 15,000 to 25,000 species. “It’s going to be a fun adventure for the next few decades,” Dr. Wilson said.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company. Reprinted with permission
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