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...

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