Encyclopedia of Life
For Immediate Release
Encyclopedia of Life
The Field Museum of Natural History, Harvard University, Marine Biological Laboratory, Smithsonian Institution, and Biodiversity Heritage Library have joined together in an unprecedented global effort to document all 1.8 million named species of animals, plants, and other forms of life on Earth in an Encyclopedia of Life (EOL), openly accessible on the internet. For the first time in the history of the planet, scientists, students, and citizens will have multi-media access to all known species, even those that have just been discovered. In addition to the cornerstone institutions, The Missouri Botanical Garden has recently become a full partner in this initiative, and discussions are taking place to add the new Atlas of Living Australia to the list of core partners.
A major contribution of The Field Museum to the Encyclopedia of Life initiative is the establishment of a Biodiversity Synthesis Center, which will promote scientific discovery related to biodiversity, conservation, and the evolution of life. The Synthesis Center’s three major goals are:
- Scientific discovery. The charter goal of the Synthesis Center is the genesis of new insight into life’s diversity, evolution, distribution and conservation. Integrating diverse information sources empowers people to generate new questions, insights and discoveries. The ultimate goal is to ask, and answer, powerful new questions about biodiversity.
- Scientific interaction. The Synthesis Center will support and host scientific meetings on topics in biodiversity such as taxonomy, biogeography, phylogenetics, computational approaches to biodiversity, and other areas. Meetings will be proposed by the academic community to assemble novel and complementary groups of people addressing central questions in biodiversity.
- Academic participation. The Synthesis Center will help to recruit experts in biodiversity, computer science, conservation, and other disciplines to EOL development and synthesis. The Center will help to forge important links among the diverse academic communities, the many users of the EOL and the various members of the EOL development team.
An initial set of central themes in biodiversity informatics will serve as templates for synthesis group proposals and for activities of the Synthesis Center’s scientific staff. These are:
- Biodiversity in space and time. The Synthesis Center will host groups that are developing new tools for biogeographic mapping using the EOL platform. For example, groups will explore the integration of biodiversity hot spot maps, museum specimen data, geologic history, and environmental variables in new ways.
- The Tree of Life. Phylogeny is the historical record of life’s diversification and is our conceptual framework for the evolution of life. The Synthesis Center will host groups that integrate taxonomic and phylogenetic databases and use the Tree of Life to discover and illustrate trends in the evolution of biodiversity. A specific goal is to develop a web-based, interactive visualization and navigation tool for large evolutionary trees.
- Quantum leaps in discovering and describing biodiversity. A daunting challenge in biodiversity is the discovery and description of vast numbers of unknown species. A key priority for the Synthesis Center is to integrate specimen data and taxonomic information for large, diverse yet understudied or problematic groups of organisms (e.g. beetles, bivalves, nematodes, fungi, etc). A specific goal is to develop new technology to aid in identification and description of species.
- Conservation of biodiversity. A deeper understanding of biodiversity should lead to improved management and conservation by governments, conservation organizations, and the general public. Synthesis of data sets on species distribution, evolutionary trees, genetics, and ecology at the Center will aid in developing linkages between biodiversity science and conservation.
Dr. Mark Westneat, a Curator in the Department of Zoology at The Field Museum, will serve as the first Director of the new Biodiversity Synthesis Center, which will be a part of the Division of Collections and Research.