Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Writing The Book Of Life

If knowledge is power, then everyone interested in biodiversity, from biologist to conservation lawyer, is about to become far more powerful. Until now, information about the diverse forms of life that inhabit the earth has been spread across myriad publications. With skill, tenacity, and a lot of time one could eventually gather a significant fraction of the high-quality information known about the Caribbean Monk Seal, Eastern Cottonwood, Elkhorn Coral, or Giant Amoeba. However, with approximately 17 000 000 Linnaean species thought to exist currently, such laborious efforts, especially when uncoordinated among those interested in the information, are wasteful, inefficient, and slow. This situation is a significant impediment to the academic study of biodiversity, often requiring biologists to duplicate research efforts. Even worse, it acts as a serious hurdle to legal efforts to conserve threatened organisms since gaps in knowledge often lead to gaps in effective actions.

The Encyclopedia of Life ("EOL") offers a solution. Soon to launched, this web-based initiative describes its mission and contents as follows:

Comprehensive, collaborative, ever-growing, and personalized, the Encyclopedia of Life is an ecosystem of websites that makes all key information about life on Earth accessible to anyone, anywhere in the world. Our goal is to create a constantly evolving encyclopedia that lives on the Internet, with contributions from scientists and amateurs alike. To transform the science of biology, and inspire a new generation of scientists, by aggregating all known data about every living species. And ultimately, to increase our collective understanding of life on Earth, and safeguard the richest possible spectrum of biodiversity.

The first project of the EOL will be to gather, collate, and synthesize information about the 1 800 000 Linnaean species currently extant. Though a huge undertaking, the benefits of the EOL to both biology and conservation are potentially enormous. As Harvard University Professor E.O. Wilson eloquently stated in his acceptance of the 2007 TED award, the EOL could be "the key tool we need to inspire preservation of earth's biodiversity." If combined with a similar web-based resource analyzing and synthesizing biodiversity laws (coming soon, so watch this space), many current excuses for inaction on conservation issues could begin to melt away.


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