Researchers to compile Earth's 'book of life'

Over the next 10 years, they vow to gather information about the planet's 1.8 million species and make it available on the Web free of charge.

It will be called the "Encyclopedia of Life." And it is, as they say in Boston, wicked cool.

Imagine a website where you can research, or just read about, every living thing on earth, from a microbe that lives next to an underwater volcano to a California redwood tree. A website where you can even add your knowledge of some life form or species.

Over the next 10 years, researchers vow to gather every scrap of information available about the planet's 1.8 million known species of animals, plants, and other organisms. And once the information is gathered, it will be available on the Internet entirely for free.

This project has been initiated by five top US universities and institutions of higher learning: Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.; The Field Museum in Chicago; the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass.; the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.; and the Biodiversity Heritage Library. Other scientific institutes, like The Natural History Museum and Royal Botanic Garden in England, will make their vast collections of historic records available through the encyclopedia.

"I'm really excited about this for a number of reasons," says Prof. James Hanken, who heads Harvard's involvement in the Encyclopedia of Life. "As a scientist, it's a tremendous resource for people who study biology professionally. And it will be a real help to anyone who will need information in a hurry."

And while it will be useful to universities and scientists worldwide, Professor Hanken also says it will also be a real boon for K-12 education.

"Kids just gravitate to this kind of thing," he says in a telephone interview. "If we keep it accessible and helpful and cool, they will use it all the time."

The project is the dream of several top scientists, including renowned Harvard biologist and philosopher E.O. Wilson, who described such a project in a widely read essay written in 2003. In a news release from Harvard last week, he said that since he first put the idea forward, "science has advanced, technology has moved forward. Today, the practicalities of making this encyclopedia real are within reach as never before."

In a speech he gave after receiving this year's Technology, Entertainment and Design award (watch it at: www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/83), he asked people around the world to help make the encyclopedia a reality.

"Working together, you can make this real," Dr. Wilson said. "The encyclopedia will quickly pay for itself in practical applications. It will transform the science of biology in ways of obvious benefit to humanity. And, most of all, it can inspire a new generation of biologists to continue the quest that started for me 60 years ago. To search for life, to understand it, and to preserve it."

Yet if the Internet didn't exist, it's not likely this project would, either. Scientists have been cataloguing life on Earth for about 250 years. That information, however, is scattered throughout universities, museums, and research institutes around the planet. Scientists often have to travel to other parts of the world to research flora or fauna in their own country. Having a global communications and storage network available, like the Internet, means those scientists can stay at home to do their research.

The site will be modeled after Wikipedia, the popular online encyclopedia. According to Science Daily, each species will have a "Wikipedia-style Web page detailing each organism's genome, geographic distribution, phylogenetic position, habitat, and ecological relationships."

The project coordinators will open scanning centers around the world (they already exist in Boston, London, and Washington, D.C.), where researchers will scan tens of millions of pages of research, clean up the data, and prepare it for the publication on the Internet.

Like Wikipedia, the project will also be "open source." So birders, amateur naturalists, school children, and others will be able to contribute to the project in a special section. Unlike Wikipedia, however, all the articles in the main section will be reviewed and approved by scientists before they are published.

A project like this not only takes a lot of time, but also a lot of money. The John D. and Catherine T. Mac­Arthur Foundation will support the Encyclopedia of Life with a $10 million grant, while the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has agreed to give $2.5 million. A condition of both of these gifts, however, is that the project become self-sustaining financially (but free to users).

You can visit the Encyclo­pedia of Life at: www.eol.org. The website already has a development timeline along with an extensive Frequently Asked Questions section that describes the project in greater detail. The EOL site also contains a few test pages: a page for the polar bear at www.eol.org/vision/bear_expert.html and for the yeti crab at www.eol.org/vision/crab_expert.html. There is also a four-minute information video at YouTube (www.youtube.com/watch?v=6NwfGA4cxJQ).

Biweekly columnist Tom Regan also hosts NPR.org's Newsblog.

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