How open-source biology could save a shrinking—but vital—sector of science
E.O. Wilson has a dream. In 2003 the eminent Harvard biologist sketched out his vision for what he called “a single-portal electronic encyclopedia of life.” This encyclopedia—a website, essentially—would grant each of the documented 1.8 million species on Earth its own page featuring a detailed summary of everything known about it: its scientific name, habitat, and geographic range and distribution; what it eats and is eaten by; and where it fits on the evolutionary tree of life. It would be freely accessible to everyone everywhere, scientists and laypeople alike.
That dream is well on its way to becoming reality. Launched in 2008, the Encyclopedia of Life is online (www.eol.org) with 170,000 species pages and—as it continues to form partnerships with taxonomists, libraries, and biodiversity databases—counting. The encyclopedia’s sophisticated technology allows it to pool and sift biological data from everywhere, in a manner that will change the quantity and quality of what both scientists and casual viewers can learn about life on Earth and the manner in which they do so. Never mind evolution; this is revolution.
“The value of the encyclopedia as a whole is as a macroscope, to look across the big picture of hundreds of thousands of species,” says Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University. A scientist might compare the life spans of hundreds of species across taxa and habitats to see what patterns emerge, the sort of study that currently is too complicated and expensive to conduct. Another might employ tags to establish which organisms eat, and are eaten by, others, thereby beginning to assemble a robust picture of food webs.
The Encyclopedia of Life represents a race against time. Our planet is experiencing rapid environmental change; numerous species, from rare Hawaiian caterpillars to Arctic polar bears, may well be extinct by the time the encyclopedia achieves its goal of indexing the world’s 1.8 million known species—never mind those that are still undocumented, which may number in the hundreds of millions. As Wilson put it during his address at the 2007 TED conference, an annual mixer of creative and scientific minds, “Our knowledge of biodiversity is so incomplete that we are at risk of losing a great deal of it before it is even discovered.”
Looming behind the biodiversity crisis, meanwhile, is an equally pressing if far less recognized concern, the biodiversity-scientist crisis. Of the tens of thousands of biologists around the world, only some 6,000 are taxonomists, trained to identify new species and confirm the identity of existing ones. They are experts in spiders, experts in sea worms, experts in fungi. Theirs is tedious work: peering through microscopes day after day, counting tiny hairs on tiny stems or tiny legs to distinguish one organism from another. They are the librarians of life; without them, nature’s volumes are meaningless.
But the science of taxonomy is dwindling and its practitioners aging, as universities and museums cut financing for this unglamorous yet essential science. “The sad thing is, just as the Encyclopedia of Life has come along, the number of people who supply biodiversity information is very small,” says Barbara Thiers of the New York Botanical Garden. “People aren’t being trained to identify individual organisms anymore. If the encyclopedia can change that, that would be wonderful.”
Excerpted from OnEarth (Fall 2009), the charismatic environmental magazine of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Nominated for a 2009 Utne Independent Press Award for environmental coverage.