Encyclopedia of Life to be launched online

Encyclopedia of Life was announced today, a highly ambitious and exciting project designed to document the 1.8 million named species of animals, plants, and other forms of life on Earth with individual species homepages from aardvarks to zinnias. The EOL will be headquartered in Washington and envisions a computer-based roster of all life on Earth, which will give field scientists an unprecedented way to determine whether they have encountered a new species.

“For biologists, this is equivalent to the moon shot or mapping the human genome, in terms of complexity and scope,” said Gary Borisy, director of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

Partners include the Field Museum, Harvard University, Marine Biological Laboratory (Woods Hole), Smithsonian Institution, and Biodiversity Heritage Library. The project is being funded by a $10 million grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and $2.5 million from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Marine Biological Laboratory has developed software that will allow for sophisticated scientific comparisons to be made between species.

“The Encyclopedia of Life will provide valuable biodiversity and conservation information to anyone, anywhere, at any time,” said Dr. James Edwards, currently Executive Secretary of the Global Biodiversity Information Facility who today was officially named Executive Director of the Encyclopedia of Life. “Through collaboration, we all can increase our appreciation of the immense variety of life, the challenges to it, and ways to conserve biodiversity. The Encyclopedia of Life will ultimately make high-quality, well organized information available on an unprecedented level. Even five years ago, we could not create such a resource, but advances in technology for searching, annotating, and visualizing information now permit us, indeed mandate us to build the Encyclopedia of Life.”

The project will be developed over the next 10 years and will expedite the classification of new species, which will then be added to the the 1.8 million named species. Each species page will provide information, photos, video, sound, location maps, and other multimedia information.

“The Encyclopedia of Life will be a vital tool for scientists, researchers, and educators across the globe, providing easy access to the latest and best information on all known species,” said Jonathan F. Fanton, President of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. “Technology is allowing science to grasp the immense complexity of life on this planet. Sharing what we know, we can protect Earth’s biodiversity and better conserve our natural heritage.”

One of the world’s foremost scientists and environmentalists, E.O. Wilson, professor emeritus at Harvard University, is on the EOL advisory board. During a conference address, he expressed his wish for an Encyclopedia of Life noting that “our knowledge of biodiversity is so incomplete that we are at risk of losing a great deal of it before it is ever discovered.”

“The solidarity of the U.S. and global communities for the Encyclopedia of Life is tremendously exciting and lifts my confidence that this vast, romantic global effort will succeed,” Edwards said. “We are also encouraged by the declaration in March 2007 by the environment ministers of the G8 nations to foster a global species information system.”

Each species will be backed by data from the Biodiversity Heritage Library, which has access to the vast majority of relevant scientific literature. Data will be scanned and digitized into millions of pages that will offer open access to detailed knowledge.

“Our ignorance is dangerous,” says Wilson, “Life forms with which we’ve shared the planet are going extinct at an alarming rate — usually before we even determine what they are and what role they play in the ecosystem,” he said. “Our knowledge of biodiversity is so incomplete that we are at risk of losing a great deal of it before it is even discovered.”

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