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BIODIVERSITY: Scientists Build a Macroscope of Life on Earth

Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Jun 2 2009 (IPS) - Imagine looking at a Google Maps-like satellite image of the Amazon forest and with a mouse click find out what lives in that bit of forest – what tree and plant species are there, what animals, birds and insects.

You could even look at the DNA of the microbes that live on those insects in this amazing, futuristic online “macroscope of life” on planet Earth.

The information about these Amazonian species, their habitats and even their DNA already exists in most cases. But it is scattered like dry leaves all over the world in dusty museum basements, science labs, libraries and hundreds of electronic databases.

This week, scientists are launching a 10-year global effort to gather and compile the world’s vast storehouse of knowledge about biodiversity into a single online, interactive information system for life on Earth that will take its place alongside the world meteorology data network that pools information to predict the weather.

“A macroscope is between a microscope and a telescope. This will be a virtual macroscope observatory,” explained David Schindel of the Consortium for the Barcode of Life (CBOL), at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.

“It is only through a global, integrated system like this can we get answers to the great questions of our time,” Schindel told IPS.

Among these “mega-questions” the macroscope, officially known as e-Biosphere, may answer is why are there so many different types of living organisms and how do we as a society co-exist with them and prevent the loss of ecosystems, he suggested.

It will also be an information tool for everyone with a question and online access.

Found a strange insect in your garden? Online identification guides, digital images and maps, and global databases will help puzzle out the species name, where it came from and whether it’s a harmful invasive species.

Interested in the forest along your favourite mountain trail? You’ll soon be able to start with an online satellite image, then click to find out trees, plants and animals live there.

While all this may sound too futuristic to be a real possibility in a few years time, experts are working out the details at the first e-Biosphere 09 International Conference on Biodiversity Informatics in London this week. They will apply the latest in information technologies to build new software tools that make a global, free access biodiversity information network a reality.

“We are creating a virtual observatory for world biodiversity, where environmental observations, specimen data, experimental results, and sophisticated modeling can be done across all levels of biodiversity – from genes to ecosystems,” said James Edwards, executive director of the Encyclopedia of Life, based at the Smithsonian Institution,

“The impact of that information increases tremendously when it is connected and made easily accessible online to all,” Edwards told IPS.

The e-Biosphere will be very important for developing countries because much of the data about their own ecosystems collected over many decades resides in the libraries, museums and research archives of the developed world.

“Most of the information about the biodiversity of developing countries is in the north,” Edwards said.

In the near future, someone in Kenya can use their cell phone to take a picture of an insect, email it and get an answer about its identity, what it eats and so on in real time, according to Edwards.

“Many new species discoveries are already coming from the public,” he said. “This will just ramp that up.”

Expert identification software is getting good enough that soon it will be able to automatically figure out a plant’s species simply from a photo of a leaf.

Edwards estimates that there a billion information records about the Earth’s living creatures. The Global Biodiversity Information Facility in Copenhagen already has 170 million and the rest is just waiting to be collected and put into digital form.

Much of the data will come from non-scientists – farmers, fishers, bird lovers and amateur naturalists – who have collected enormous amounts of data about when flowers bloom, or what butterflies and birds are present in their locales. Some of these go back hundreds of years.

“Analysing this data will be extremely valuable in understanding the impacts of climate change and other historical changes,” Edwards said.

Potential uses are endless.

One is bio-security, through pest and alien species detection and quarantine. Studies show the early identification of an invasive pest in Africa, for example, saved produce worth billions of dollars.

Another application is faster, easier determination of the origin of animal-related viruses and other human health threats, identification of disease and drought-resistant plants, fish stock assessments and by-catch identification.

At the consumer level, the macroscope could help identify which species of fish are mislabelled and sold in grocery stores and restaurants, or which processed wood products in the marketplace have been illegally harvested and imported.

All kinds of other data, such as land use information and other socio-economic input, could be integrated. The full magnitude of how it could be used simply isn’t known at this point, said Edwards.

Schindel compares it to the evolution of global positioning systems (GPS). Only a few years ago, they were big, expensive devices and all they could do is tell you where you are. Now all sorts of data like maps, tourist information and lots more are integrated into a small device.

“Everyone will want to participate and put their data in,” he said.

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