Scientists Plan Virtual World of Biodiversity

Particle physicists use massive accelerators to push the theoretical envelope; astronomers use increasingly high-powered telescopes to inch farther into the universe. But scientists specializing in biodiversity have decided that to better understand the planet's known organisms, as well as their habitats and ecosystems, they don't need a mammoth physical structure. Instead, many advocate a vast virtual facility that would compile and catalog detailed data sets on the billions of living things s

Eugene Russo
Mar 14, 1999

Particle physicists use massive accelerators to push the theoretical envelope; astronomers use increasingly high-powered telescopes to inch farther into the universe. But scientists specializing in biodiversity have decided that to better understand the planet's known organisms, as well as their habitats and ecosystems, they don't need a mammoth physical structure. Instead, many advocate a vast virtual facility that would compile and catalog detailed data sets on the billions of living things strewn throughout the biosphere.

On March 24 and 25, at an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) meeting in Paris, representatives from several countries will try to put the finishing touches on plans for a new electronic information network called the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF). First envisioned in the early 1990s and likely to go online by 2000, GBIF is the global version of virtual biodiversity facility efforts already under way all over the world at regional, national, and international levels. Most states have online so-called "Natural Heritage Programs." The national virtual facility version in the United States, called the National Biological Information Infrastructure (NBII), first came online in 1989; it has a counterpart in Australia called the Environmental Resource Information Network (ERIN) and one in Canada called CAN NBII.

Some examples of the sorts of information currently available through the NBII (www.nbii.gov).

In the past, biodiversity studies may have involved scientists' exchanging pinned, preserved specimens through the mail or visiting museums to inspect them in person. While there will likely never be a substitute for having the actual specimen in hand, scientists will, say the organizers of biological infrastructure networks, be able to simplify projects and save time by calling up most of the data sets for a species or family with the click of a button. Other potential applications include tracking and learning about damaging invasive species, their predators, and associated diseases, as well as linking phylogenetic, evolutionary, and molecular data. These facilities could also serve as an important mechanism for conservation. "Being able to pull up that information fast is really going to enhance conservation practice," says Tom Lovejoy, chief biodiversity adviser at the World Bank and leader of the original OECD subgroup on biodiversity informatics that initially devised GBIF.

The NBII and similar projects around the world will, in essence, be the first pieces of the GBIF network. "Creating a GBIF is connecting those pieces into a larger whole; it's not preempting [them] in the least," notes Lovejoy. Led by the U.S. Geological Survey, NBII is actually slated to receive an upgrade referred to as NBII-2 or "next generation NBII." A March 1998 President's Committee of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) report recommended that the government invest $40 million a year for the next five years in NBII-2 to increase the number of databases online, adopt better standards for biodiversity and ecosystem information, and establish a system of regional supercomputer nodes that would enhance data crunching capabilities. Gladys Cotter, a USGS associate chief biologist for information who works mostly on the NBII, emphasizes the importance of making state, regional, national, and global virtual infrastructures technologically compatible and compliant with certain standards so that data can be exchanged easily.

Although the U.S. government has yet to actually spend any money on the GBIF program, funding for fiscal year 2000 looks likely, and several other countries, including Australia, Denmark, and the United Kingdom, have already pledged to invest resources. "And that's always a good sign in these international activities," says Cotter. "It's not unusual for a group to get together and put together a grand plan that ... sits on the shelf and gathers dust, and that's about all it ever does." Those taking part in the upcoming March meeting will attempt to decide, among other things, where the project's governing board offices will be located, and how much funding will come from individual participating countries.

Also at issue is the concern of many developing countries that GBIF, which is at this point a partnership of industrialized countries, could act to "mine" biodiversity information from within Third World country borders. The concern stems from the fact that while most of the world's biodiversity data is located in industrialized countries as part of natural history collections at museums and botanical gardens, most of the biodiversity is not. Industrialized countries have tried to allay those fears by saying that once these biological information infrastructures have been established, images, perhaps someday 3-D images, of all Third World country artifacts and specimens housed in the museums of industrialized nations will be readily accessible. GBIF would therefore also greatly benefit those countries without vast specimen collections.

"The Canadians always tell us that they have more in their museums from the [United States] than most of the U.S. museums have," says Cotter. "So it's not just an issue with developing countries."

"Hopefully, [GBIF is] going to be a win-win proposition for institutions and countries that participate," remarks Steve Young, a computer specialist working on GBIF at the Environmental Protection Agency. Young envisions a give-and-take relationship in which participants would be both contributing and accessing data from GBIF. "This should be a constantly growing and evolving kind of facility--kind of like an organism," he says with a chuckle.