'Encyclopedia of Life' To Catalogue Species

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 9, 2007

A group of the world's leading scientists announced yesterday that they had joined forces to document the world's 1.8 million named species in a massive new "Encyclopedia of Life."

The unprecedented $12.5 million effort -- a collaboration of Chicago's Field Museum, Harvard University, the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Mass., the Smithsonian Institution, the Biodiversity Heritage Library and the Missouri Botanical Garden -- aims to create separate Web pages on every known species within a decade.

Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, who helped initiate the project, estimates that humans have catalogued just 10 percent of the world's species, and much of the information is fragmented. The encyclopedia will create a reservoir of knowledge akin to the Human Genome Project, he said in an interview Monday.

"In an relatively short period of time, we'll be able to fill up everything that is known on a given species," Wilson said. "It's something that's invaluable, and its time has come."

The entries will include written information, as well as photos, video and sound recordings, and locator maps when possible, and it will be subject to the same kind of public editing process that is practiced on the Wikipedia Web site.

Researchers began creating Web pages for individual species in the 1990s, but they have not been collected in a centralized database. The encyclopedia's creators have pledged to make the site available in several major languages and will include entries on animals, plants, and fungi, and possibly microbial life.

"Technology is allowing science to grasp the complexity of life on this planet," said Jonathan F. Fanton, president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which has donated $10 million to the undertaking. "Sharing what we know, we can protect Earth's biodiversity and better conserve our natural heritage."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company