All Life Is Here

In Washington this morning a major scientific announcement by a consortium of major scientific institutions:

In a whale-size project, the world’s scientists plan to compile everything they know about all of Earth’s 1.8 million known species and put it all on one Web site.

The effort, called the Encyclopaedia of Life, will include species descriptions, pictures, maps, videos, sound, sightings by amateurs and links to entire genomes and scientific journal papers. Its first pages of information are expected to be shown today in Washington, where the massive effort is being announced by some of the world’s leading scientific institutions and universities. The project will take about 10 years to complete.

“It’s an interactive zoo,” said James Edwards, who will be the encyclopedia’s executive director. Edwards currently helps run a global biodiversity information system.

If the new encyclopaedia progresses as planned, it should fill about 300 million pages, which, if lined up end to end, would be more than 52,000 miles long, able to stretch twice around the world at the equator.

The MacArthur and Sloan foundations have given a total $12.5 million to pay for the first 2 1/2 years of the massive effort, but it will be free and accessible to everyone.

The pages can be adjusted so that they provide useful information for both a schoolchild and a research biologist alike, with an emphasis on encouraging “citizen-scientists” to add their sightings. While amateurs can contribute in clearly marked side pages, the key detail and science parts of the encyclopedia will be compiled and reviewed by experts.

“It could be a very big leap in the way we do science,” said Cristian Samper, acting secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, one of seven museums, universities and labs to launch the encyclopedia. “This is a project that is so big, not even the Smithsonian could do it by itself. It is a global effort.”

Other institutions helping head the undertaking include Harvard University, Chicago’s Field Museum, the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, the Biodiversity Heritage Library Consortium, the Missouri Botanical Garden, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Atlas of Living Australia.

The project will try to be like Mexico’s Conabio compilation of all 70,000 named species in that country, but bigger, Edwards said.

“They are going to do something extremely ambitious and important,” said Conabio’s founding director Jorge Soberon, now a professor at the University of Kansas.

For more than a decade, scientists have tried to compile simply a list of all species on Earth, but failed. It’s been too complicated, too expensive and too cumbersome.

This effort may succeed where the others have faltered because of new search-engine technology – the same kind that Google uses. It will scan the Web for scientific information on the Internet and “mash up” all of the material into a file that then gets reviewed by expert curators, said Harvard’s James Hanken, a steering committee member.

Edwards said the public will be able to send information to scientists that they wouldn’t have otherwise.

“The public can contribute, and that makes a big difference,” Soberon said. “It’s one thing to be a passive spectator and another when the public can contribute.”

A good description from Harvard this morning – which is justifiably proud of having dreamed this grand dream.

Realizing a dream articulated in 2003 by renowned biologist E.O. Wilson, Harvard and four partner institutions have launched an ambitious effort to create an Encyclopaedia of Life (EOL), an unprecedented project to document online every one of Earth’s 1.8 million known species. For the first time in history, the EOL would grant scientists, students, and others multimedia access to all known living species, even those just discovered.

With a Wikipedia-style Web page detailing each organism’s genome, geographic distribution, phylogenetic position, habitat, and ecological relationships, organizers hope the EOL will ultimately serve as a global beacon for biodiversity and conservation.

For more than 250 years, scientists have catalogued life, but traditional catalogues have long since become unwieldy, EOL organizers say. They believe technology can help science grasp the immense complexity of life on this planet while protecting Earth’s biodiversity and better conserving our natural heritage.

Over the next 10 years, the EOL will create Web pages for all 1.8 million living species known to exist on Earth. The pages will provide written information and, when available, photographs, video, sound, location maps, and other multimedia information on each species. Built on the scientific integrity of thousands of experts around the globe, the EOL will be a moderated Wikipedia-like resource, freely available to all users everywhere.

A prolific and eloquent author and perhaps the world’s foremost champion of biodiversity, Wilson, the Pellegrino University Professor Emeritus at Harvard and now the honorary chair of the EOL, cheers the project’s advent.

“Our knowledge of biodiversity is so incomplete that we are at risk of losing a great deal of it before it is ever discovered,” he says, adding the hope “that we will work together to help create the key tool that we need to inspire preservation of Earth’s biodiversity: the Encyclopaedia of Life. What excites me is that since I first put forward this idea, science has advanced, technology has moved forward,” Wilson says. “Today, the practicalities of making this encyclopedia real are within reach as never before.”

Scientists began creating individual Web pages for species in the 1990s. However, Internet technology needed to mature to allow efficient creation of a comprehensive encyclopedia. While specific EOL efforts, including the scanning of key research publications and data, have been under way since January 2006, work has accelerated with the support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Ultimately, the EOL will be made available in numerous languages and will connect scientific communities concerned with ants, apples, or zebras. While initial work will emphasize species of animals, plants, and fungi, the design can be extended to encompass microbial life.

To provide depth behind the portal page for each species, the Biodiversity Heritage Library, a consortium that holds most of the relevant scientific literature, will scan and digitize tens of millions of pages of the scientific literature that will offer open access to detailed knowledge. In fact, the BHL already has scanning centers operating in London, Boston, and Washington, D.C., which have scanned the first 1.25 million pages for the EOL.

“I dream that in a few years, wherever a reference to a species occurs on the Internet, there will be a hyperlink to its page in the Encyclopaedia of Life,” says James Edwards, executive secretary of the Global Biodiversity Information Facility and executive director of the EOL.

Take a look at the sample page on Rice – to see what it might do.