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Scientists strive to create the book of life Add to ...

Scientists around the world have begun an enormous enumeration effort last attempted by Noah, the Bible's biological census-taker.

If all goes according to plan, by 2011 all the world's 1.75 million known species of plants, animals, bacteria, viruses etc. will be listed on easily available websites. While the project, somewhat grandiloquently known as the Catalogue of Life, will initially simply record the scientific names of Earth's known organisms, those involved see the project as part of a larger effort to create the Internet's official index for every living thing.

"Eventually we will have the species' distribution, images of it, genetic information, other names it is called by, common names used in different languages, life cycle information, and more," says Pamela Harling, a spokeswoman for the England-based Species 2000, which is one of the participating agencies in the organization of the Catalogue of Life.

But the first problem the catalogue is trying to address is the fractured state of species listings as they exist today. "Information is held partially in museum collections or is printed in regional flora and fauna catalogues. It's somewhere, but it's nowhere in a format anyone can reach easily," Ms. Harling says.

This disorganization is due to the reality that the efforts to record all the world's living matter have been intrinsically local and thus subject to local naming and cataloguing idiosyncrasies. While no one is sure of an exact number, it is estimated that upward of 50 per cent of today's listings containing the most basic species information -- what a thing is called -- is in a printed format not available to most people.

One result is that even the richest and best-organized countries in the world don't know basic things about species found in their territories. "It's kind of amazing, we don't even have a simple list of all species found in North America or, in our national case, of all the species in Canada," says Guy Baillargeon, the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada scientist who is in charge of co-ordinating species-name gathering in this country.

In the past, this organizational eccentricity might simply have been chalked up as another feature of the quirky world of taxonomists, the scientists who name and categorize living creatures.

However, the growth of environmental consciousness and the awareness of the careless way in which species are being driven extinct have raised interest in knowing what we have before it disappears. It has been estimated that 3,000 to 30,000 species go extinct annually and that in the 20th century alone 250,000 were driven out of existence.

"But it is difficult to make an assessment of how common or rare something is if we don't know where it is distributed, and you can't know that if you don't know what it is called in different places," Ms. Harling says.

Equally important may be the movement of species across national lines. "If you have what are thought to be invasive species which come across the border, you need to know whether it is native or not. That requires having a standard to compare it to," says Mike Ruggiero, a scientist with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, which is another of the partners in the Catalogue of Life effort.

While the advantages of having a single book of life in which all the things are listed is obvious, completing the compendium is hard. One problem is that while taxonomy is necessary, it is almost the reverse of sexy science. "It is a lot easier to get funding for some big genomic project than to get funding to basically make a list of names -- no matter how much it is needed," Mr. Baillargeon says.

And then there is the tedium. You have to sort through alternative names and misspelled names to pin down the agreed-upon appellation for an organism. This is a kind of scientific grunt work that Agriculture Canada has allowed to be done, at least in part, by skilled amateurs who have volunteered their services, Mr. Baillargeon says.

Indeed, there is a non-professional tinge to the Catalogue of Life enterprise already, with some of the individual species databases -- notably that for the scarab beetle -- already being run by knowledgeable amateurs.

If successfully completed by 2011, the Catalogue of Life will mark a beginning as much as an end to the modern attempt to catalogue life on the planet. What Mr. Ruggiero playfully calls the "telephone book of life" lists only known species. Various estimates have put the total number of species existing at three million to 10 million.

The irony that most of the species on Earth will not be listed in a Catalogue of Life is not lost on those involved in the project. "We are gearing up to go to Mars, but we still don't know how many species there are on Earth," Mr. Baillargeon remarks.

And finally, those involved in the project humorously point out that when completed, the project would allow a modern-day Noah to "scientifically" construct an ark that actually did contain all the planet's life forms. "The database will tell you how many species there are and which taxon they fall into and you build your ark according," Mr. Ruggiero says.

Moreover, if he follows this database, a modern Noah will also be able to circumvent the command to take two of each creatures with him, as most of the single-celled organisms and many plants can generate asexually.

Stephen Strauss writes on science for The Globe and Mail.

 

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