The Encyclopedia of Life

When I was in University I read a paper by renown biologist EO Wilson, about his dream to create an online database that contained the sum of human knowledge on all the millions of organisms that inhabit our planet. That dream is now coming to fruition with the Encyclopedia of life. The potential impact this effort could have on biodiversity research is difficult to overstate. If you have half-an-hour to spend, I strongly suggest you watch the video above. It will give you a sense of the immense importance of biodiversity, especially the importance of the little organisms that run the world, and it will give you a sense of the importance of such a project.

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…

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… 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…

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.

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