Inventory of Life

The idea sounds audacious: catalog all life on Earth within 25 years, a human generation. The All-Species Inventory hopes to do just that, with private funds and the help of a worldwide network of scientists and nature lovers. "It is a dream, but a neat one,"

By | July 23, 2001

The idea sounds audacious: catalog all life on Earth within 25 years, a human generation. The All-Species Inventory hopes to do just that, with private funds and the help of a worldwide network of scientists and nature lovers. "It is a dream, but a neat one," says A. Townsend Peterson, curator of ornithology at the natural history museum and associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas, Lawrence. He is one of 40 scientific advisers to the All-Species effort.

"Asking why knowing all the species makes a difference is similar to asking why knowing all the chemical elements is important. Without knowledge of all the chemical elements, the predictive aspect of chemistry would be limited. Without knowledge of all the species, the predictive aspect of biology is limited," says David Hillis, an advisor to All-Species, director of the school of biological sciences, and Alfred W. Roark Centennial Professor at the University of Texas, Austin.

And the task is daunting. Over the past few centuries, scientists have identified and named only 1.8 million of the estimated 10 to 100 million extant species. Said advisor Edward O. Wilson, University Research Professor and Honorary Curator of Entomology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, at the announcement of the project at Harvard on October 13, 2000, "A full global biodiversity map is the foundation of the encyclopedia of life on which all of biology will be assembled."

All-Species is the brainchild of Kevin Kelly, a self-described college dropout, photographer, businessman, author, and co-founder of Wired magazine. "The idea for All-Species came at a dinner hosted by Nathan Myrvold, formerly vice president of research for Microsoft, in February 2000. A guy who handles investments was complaining about how difficult it is to give away a billion dollars. If you give it away too slowly, you never give it away. But if you give it away fast, you end up spending most of it on the organization of giving it away. I was thinking of what I would do with a billion dollars," Kelly relates.

Cataloging all species on earth would satisfy Kelly's dual interests in information technology and global projects. After much research into who might accept such a challenge, he and the advisors first met in September 2000, with another summit slated for October 2001 at Harvard. "One of the most refreshing things about the main people behind All-Species - Kevin Kelly, Stewart Brand, and Ryan Phelan - is that they Think Big. After these folks articulated their goal, the feeling I had was, 'Wow, we could really do this!,'" relates David Maddison, founder of the Tree of Life Web Project and associate professor of entomology at the University of Arizona, Tucson.

Kelly's vision is to unite the many local efforts to catalog species. "We do not have an inventory of all life on earth. If we landed on another planet, that would be the first thing we'd do," he says. As Kelly nosed around the life science community, he realized that an all-species inventory could speed the pace of research. "When we talked to taxonomists, we found that they had been ignored by the money of science," he says, offering the example of an ecologist studying jumping spiders who needed to know the different species. "If such a resource was already available, the ecologist could move on to interesting questions, such as species interactions, instead of doing the cataloging as part of the investigation because so little is known."

Of Gentleman, Naturalists, and Bionerds

All-Species will use information to organize and bring together the specimen collections of yesterday and the discoveries of tomorrow. "For 200 years 'gentleman naturalists' have inventoried some 1.8 million species. Meanwhile, researchers laboriously shipped specimens around, which might sit in drawers for years," says Kelly.

Peterson offers an example of past difficulties in coordinating taxonomic research - his work on the red jungle fowl, the wild ancestor of the chicken. The research is part of a project to document birds in Mexico. "I had to assemble all of the information. That meant nine months, 753 specimen records, and 53 natural history museums. Snail mail went to some curators, e-mails to others, and I searched databases," he relates. If each institution had information on its collections freely available on the Internet, he adds, "the Mexico project would go from taking 10 years to 10 minutes." Peterson has pioneered a distribution database called the Species Analyst that will catalyze this information transfer.

The All-Species Inventory will include a network of web pages that will complement or supplement, rather than duplicate, existing efforts, says Maddison. "The web pages will gradually fill out and link to other species, and include information on food webs, metabolic information, and other descriptions," Kelly says.

To be useful, a species inventory must reflect evolutionary relationships among organisms, for this is what distinguishes modern taxonomy from earlier biological classifications. Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), for example, ranked animals by habitat and body form, awarding the highest slots to the warm, moist and furry, with the pinnacle the human male. Even Carolus Linnaeus' (1707-1778) enduring binomial classifications lack evolutionary meaning. Today, many life scientists consider molecular sequence comparisons a more objective measure of species relatedness than classical "fur or feathers" types of distinctions. Explains Maddison, "Traditional tools, such as determining morphological characteristics that distinguish species, will also be of value, but these methods in some places follow rather than precede the molecular phylogenetic work."

Finding Life

The All-Species Inventory will list what is already known, as well as support new discovery. Consider what Kelly calls "bioblitz" days. "In 24 hours a team of herbalists, entomologists, and people who aren't professional taxonomists, such as mushroom enthusiasts and birders, see how many species they can catalog in one location. Invariably, they discover new species, even in backyards," he says. All-Species advisor John Pickering, a professor at the Institute of Ecology at the University of Georgia in Athens, is tackling an area much larger than a backyard. He heads a project to study all life in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, in North Carolina and Tennessee. "We're looking for all species, from viruses to bacteria to bears," he relates.

But life isn't always where humans can easily scrutinize it. Researchers have found new species in such remote places as a lobster's mouthparts, within rocks, and between grains of sand, not to mention the thriving communities discovered around deep sea hydrothermal vents in 1977.1,2 But the planners of All-Species recognize the possibility of overrepresenting the visible and the familiar. "Yes, there is a potential for a bias toward the macroscopic, but there are a lot of current efforts to understand microscopic diversity. Right now, the most underrepresented groups in terms of percent of undescribed species are probably macroscopic. Groups such as insects and nematodes account for a huge percentage of undescribed species," says Hillis. Peterson adds that 70 to 90 percent of the insects in collections aren't identified - and we don't know how many have not yet fallen into entomologists' nets.

Kelly suggests a systematic approach to discovering life in the face of overwhelming biodiversity: inventory all the species living on or in one species. "For example, probably hundreds of species of microbes, parasites, and symbionts live on the wood rat," he says. "Learning to evaluate this species would help us learn how to do others faster."

The Global Biodiversity Information Facility

Existing biological classification programs, such as the Tree of Life Web Project and Species Analyst, fit the All-Species vision. This is also the case for the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), which is an interconnected set of databases that will include all named species, as well as the some 3 billion specimens in various collections. At GBIF's initial meeting in Montreal in March 2001, 14 countries pledged more than $2.5 million. U.S funding comes from a consortium of government agencies, says James L. Edwards, deputy assistant director of the directorate for biological sciences at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Virginia. "These include the NSF, the US Geological Survey, the Smithsonian Institution, NASA, USDA, NOAA, and EPA."

Edwards thinks that GBIF may become the informatics arm of All-Species, which is focused more on discovery and description. "GBIF will work with international agencies to get biodiversity data digitized and into databases, so that anyone anywhere in the world has access," he adds. Peterson agrees. "For example, Peru holds a sizeable chunk of the world's biodiversity, but a small chunk of information about that biodiversity."

Peterson sees GBIF as complementary to Species Analyst, which is a loose network of curators. "In contrast to GBIF's top down approach, Species Analyst is a grass roots bottoms up approach. It began in mid 1997 as two institutions sharing data - the University of Kansas and the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Then the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at Berkeley signed on, and it has grown from there," he says. Peterson notes that BGIF and Species Analyst could work together to create an even stronger whole. With such as huge task as cataloging all life, there is room for all.

The Next "Big Science" Project?

Comparison of All-Species to the human genome project is inescapable. "As little as 15 years ago, the notion of sequencing the entire human genome was seen as essentially impossible," recalls Kelly. But All-Species goals dwarf even that project, which had an endpoint. "The human genome project was a more focused challenge. All-Species is very different, because there are many challenges," says Peterson, adding that over the past 300 years, biologists have described only 2 percent of the world's biodiversity.

Once All-Species participants tackle those challenges, the rewards promise to be rich. Potential practical outcomes include discovery of new crops and pharmaceutically-active biochemicals, and perhaps increased understanding of disease. But Hillis sees a bigger picture. "To me, the far greater importance of the project is understanding the fundamental workings of the biotic component of the Earth, and gaining an appreciation of the complexity of life, including ourselves."

David Maddison likens All-Species to space exploration. For a long time, he says, our images of the outer planets were fuzzy. "Then Voyager brought back dream-like pictures of Saturn and Jupiter that captivated the imagination. The increase in resolution was astounding. Then the Galileo mission went out and the resolution increased again, dramatically. With All-Species, we have an opportunity to crank up the resolution several steps on our planet, so that we can more clearly see all of the leaves of the great, 3+ billion year old tree of life that links us all."

Ricki Lewis ( is a contributing editor for The Scientist
1. S.C. Morris, "A new phylum from the lobster's lips," Nature, 378:661. 1995.

2. P. Tyson, "Neptune's furnace," Natural History, 108:42-7, 1999.

Can We Count All Species?

Courtesy of Kevin Kelly

Kevin Kelly

All-Species Inventory founder Kevin Kelly is serious about the goal to catalog all species within 25 years. But opinions vary:

"I don't think we will have documented all species on earth in 25 years, but I think it is feasible to have a very high percentage. It will require, however, a massive amount of funds and effort, and a dramatic rethinking about how we do this."
David Maddison, founder of the Tree of Life Web Project and associate professor of entomology at the University of Arizona, Tucson, and All-Species adviser.

"I see little point in trying to catalogue all species on Earth. Before significant information can be gathered on them, most will have become extinct. Taxonomy has long suffered from a refusal to adopt a sampling approach to nature. What is needed is intensive studies of test groups where there is some chance of finishing the job - such as vertebrates, butterflies, bees, ants, mosquitoes, tiger beetles, or vascular plants."
Paul Ehrlich, Bing Professor of Population Studies, President, Center for Conservation Biology, Stanford University.

"At our first meeting, the feeling was that if we can get even half the species counted, that will be valuable. It is presumptuous to think that we could truly do all species, but we can make major strides."
A. Townsend Peterson, curator of ornithology at the natural history museum and associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, and All-Species advisor.

"It simply is not possible to describe all of the species of organisms on Earth."
Carl Woese, Ikenberry Endowed Chair of Microbiology, The University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

"The count-all-the-critters folks are frankly naïve. Their view of biology is distorted. The classical species concept fails even in the macrobiological world."
Norman Pace, professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology, University of Colorado, Boulder.

"I think it is not only possible to catalog all species, but imperative. The yearly loss to humans from ignorance about our own planet is enormous. Understanding the biodiversity of Earth certainly will not be easy, but is probably no bigger a technical problem than was sending humans to the moon, and the potential pay-off is many times greater."
David Hillis, director of the school of biological sciences and Alfred W. Roark Centennial Professor at the University of Texas, Austin, and an All-Species advisor.

--Ricki Lewis

Related Web Sites
All-Species Inventory

Species Analyst
http://habanero.nhm.ukans. edu/about.htm

Tree of Life tree/life.html

All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory

Global Biodiversity Information Facility

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