Bioinformatics: The Master List and Virtual Museum

Article excerpt

With the generous assistance of Tony Burgess

Volumes of species data and knowledge swirl in the heads of aging taxonomists and naturalists, with no place to settle. Data sit in about 10,000 paper publications, only a fraction of which can be found in libraries. Species info is starting to circulate on CD-ROMs, but most CD-ROMs and online services only carry species information collected since 1970. The grand days of natural history have no vivid presence except to those who snoop in dusty drawers and special collections. Can the books, journals, directories, databases, field and lab notebooks be harmonized? Can the babble of field guides, floras, faunas, ID keys, and monographs be coordinated (or, at least, networked)? Can collections be cataloged so that anyone can find where the specimens reside?

Bioinformatics--the gathering, manipulation, classification, storage, and retrieval of recorded knowledge about life--plays the twin to discovery/description in the all species inventory Here are the tasks:

* Digitize the Master List of Species Names

Noah's checklist for the ark requires an unprecedented combined effort by digital technologists and planetary ecologists. We might be adding 28 million to 90 million new names. Standards for which species names are acceptable will hasten the completion of the Master List.

* Digitize and Link Existing Taxonomy Collections, Species Names, and Natural Histories

Linking new and old archives will create the virtual museum of Earth. Even fossils could eventually be included. Specimens will be locatable, and images could allow taxonomists to save on air fare. Who has custodianship of these huge databases is the challenge.

* Link GPS, GIS Grids, and Maps

After "What did you see?" natural history's question is "Where did you see it"? The data come from field notes and museum labels. Researchers dream of a master GIS grid library where every finder of new species could locate what he/she saw and then link the information to local grids.

* Link Molecular Databases to Species Descriptions

There are no electronic linkages between molecular databases of "species" and their names and descriptions. …