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'Encyclopedia of Life' to provide online catalog of Earth's biodiversity

Jeremy Manier
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

CHICAGO - Although the scientific portrait of life on Earth has grown exquisitely detailed over the last few decades, scientists have done a far poorer job of making their discoveries known and accessible to the public.

A new project led in part by Chicago philanthropists and researchers aims to close that gap by creating a free Internet resource to catalog and describe every one of the planet's 1.8 million species.

If the $50 million biodiversity effort to be launched Wednesday goes as hoped, the Encyclopedia of Life could emerge as an authoritative version of Wikipedia for biology fans. Potential applications range from planning natural conservation in suburban subdivisions, to mapping coral reefs in the Pacific, to identifying that odd butterfly perched by your backyard window.

"It could be like Google Earth for the tree of life," said Mark Westneat, a curator of zoology at the Field Museum, one of the project collaborators. "Imagine zooming up the trunk of the tree of life, and zipping off to look at ferns and fungi, then zipping to the bird branches, and hopping over to dinosaurs."

Based on an idea by biologist and author Edward O. Wilson, the international project will bring together expertise and funding from the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Harvard University and the Smithsonian Institution, in addition to the Field Museum and several other institutions.

MacArthur Foundation president Jonathan F. Fanton said that for now his group has committed to give $20 million, with other partners adding about $30 million. It should take 10 years to compile all of the planet's species, by which time the final bill may run as high as $100 million, Fanton said.

Each species will get its own Web page that will include photos if available, the species' technical name, a description of the organism in non-scientific terms, a map of its natural range and an indication of where it fits in the tree of inter-related species. Where possible, the pages will feature extensive information about an organism's genetics and behavior, as well as entire research articles compiled by scientists over the centuries.

The Field Museum will work with software engineers to dream up applications that exploit the huge database that project planners hope to amass. For example, Westneat said users of the Web site could create customized maps showing the geographic home of any species or group of species, doing in minutes what can take months with current technology.

Planners hope to emulate aspects of GenBank, a National Institutes of Health site that includes all of the publicly available DNA sequences ever released, billions of records in all. That site allows scientists to compare DNA from people, lizards, bacteria and all the species in between.

Doing the same thing with a biodiversity database may open up new opportunities for policymakers as well as researchers, said Jim Edwards, who was named executive director of the Encyclopedia of Life.

In Mexico, which has compiled the world's most thorough database of national biodiversity, Edwards said officials use the information to predict where invasive species might gain a foothold and prey on existing plants and animals. The database, called Conabio, is also a ready-made resource for agricultural researchers looking for appropriate sites to conduct trials of genetically modified plants.

"If you're going to do a field trial, you don't want it in an area where there's a wild relative of the crop you're growing," Edwards said.

"A lot of these potential uses were not on the radar screen when they set up Conabio, yet it's been extremely useful for a wide variety of people," Edwards said. "We believe the benefits will be even greater when we get a critical mass of biodiversity data for the world at large."

Initially the catalog will concentrate on species that are alive now, but over time officials hope to add data from the fossil record and information about how the distribution of modern species is changing.

The project will require extensive contributions from scientists around the world, with a multitude of experts authorized to collect and refine the data-in essence, a more academic, controlled version of Wikipedia, the collaborative online encyclopedia. But planners also hope to bring in non-scientists by cordoning off portions of the site where anyone can post pictures of species and start up conversations about biodiversity or ecological issues.

An example of how such a site can appeal to diverse audiences is FishBase, the world's most complete database of fish species. Westneat of the Field Museum said planners originally thought it might have limited appeal beyond academics. Yet he said the site has found a wide niche among avid fishermen and even ordinary people who want to learn more about the animals they see in aquariums.

Another potentially powerful use for the Encyclopedia of Life is to predict the effects of climate change on different species, said Fanton of the MacArthur Foundation. He said the foundation, which funds biodiversity research around the world, could use the database to identify future trouble spots or to anticipate where species have little chance of surviving.

"It might not make sense to preserve a certain landscape if climate change over the next 20 years will make it inhospitable to the species we're trying to save," Fanton said.

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