Scitech | Book of life opens

On February 26 the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL) went online. It was an overwhelming first day, with 18.5 million hits, 13.3 million page views and 940 GB of data transferred. In fact, the web site was so overwhelmed by the visits that it had to shut down for almost four hours. Why the interest? The EOL is a Wikipedia-style web site for species, and will one day have a page for every life form known to science.

Renowned biologist E.O. Wilson is the mastermind behind the project. Shortly after he announced his dream of an encyclopedia of life in 2007, five science foundations donated $50-million to initiate the project. Dr. Wilson anticipates that the encyclopedia will have a catalytic effect on the life sciences.

“The launch of the Encyclopedia of Life will have a profound and creative effect on science,” Dr. Wilson said at a press conference. “It aims not only to summarize all that we know of Earth’s life forms, but also to accelerate the discovery of the vast array that remain unknown. This great effort promises to lay out new directions for research in every branch of biology.”

The 1.8 million known species on earth present a cataloguing challenge too great for one person to complete alone. The 30,000 pages on the site today – a fraction of the goal – took scientists many months to compile, even with the aid of programs that assembled content on their own. The site is expected to take off later in the year when it is opened up to contributions from anyone. Users will be able to create a page, add information about a species’ ecology, evolution, and cultural relevance, or upload drawings, photos, movies, and even genomes. To manage this information, each page will have a curator that will maintain professional standards of accuracy and clarity. Anyone will be able to apply to become the curator of a page, although expertise will be an advantage.

Jim Edwards, Executive Director of the EOL, sees the Encyclopedia as not only a scientific resource, but an artistic, educational, and cultural one as well. “It is exciting to anticipate the scientific chords we might hear once 1.8 million notes are brought together through this instrument,” he said in a press release. “Potential EOL users are professional and citizen scientists, teachers, students, media, environmental managers, families and artists. The site will link the public and scientific community in a collaborative way that’s without precedent in scale.”

But people who want every known species at their fingertips will have to wait until 2017. Why such a long time? As of today, knowledge about species is scattered across innumerable books, databases and journals. Tracking those species down will be one of the EOL’s biggest challenges. But it will also be one of its biggest contributions. Dr. Jonathan Fanton, president of the MacArthur Foundation, said in a press release that when the species are properly catalogued, scientists will be able to sift through them to find new patterns and meaning.

“Just as a microscope reveals and helps us better understand the small and particular, the EOL will allow us to discern patterns previously unseen, illuminating relationships, identifying gaps in our knowledge, and suggesting opportunities for new avenues of inquiry.”

Students may wonder whether they will be able to use the site as a valid reference for papers. The EOL will be more reliable than Wikipedia, in part because the curators will usually amend incorrect edits. But there may be the odd attempt to give the unicorn or jackalope its own page, and whether the EOL becomes a quotable resource remains to be seen.

The Encyclopedia of Life can be found online at eol.org


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