Bioinformatics Spinning Worldwide Web of Life

By Thwaites, Tim | Ecos, October 1998 | Go to article overview

Bioinformatics Spinning Worldwide Web of Life


Thwaites, Tim, Ecos


Tim Thwaites reports on plans to dust off the data dinosaurs that lurk in biological collections worldwide.

Using advances in corn purer technology, the information can be made accessible and easier to analyse, broadening the knowledge base upon which decisions about conservation are made.

Students from schools in South Australia's Riverland region are spending time each month clearing insect traps in the nearby Bookmark Biosphere Reserve. They sort their catch into broad groups and send them off to CSIRO Entomology in Canberra for finer identification.

The primary and secondary students are involved in a long-term project to rehabilitate the reserve by planting native species and clearing weeds. By tracking the variation in species and abundance of insects over time, they can monitor the environmental changes they engineer.

It's important work in which a significant part of the students' science curriculum and outdoor education is devoted to renewing part of the Murray Basin. Added to this, the students will be at the forefront of a concerted thrust to gather and open up access to biological data through the use of computers and the World Wide Web.

CSIRO coordinator of the Bookmark project, entomologist Dr Geoff Clarke, says the students will eventually do almost all the insect identification themselves, using information, illustrations and software lodged on the Web. And the results of their work will be freely available. It's all being financed by the Federal Government through its Natural Heritage Trust Fund.

The concept of such a high level of community involvement in gathering biological data and contributing to conservation is so new that some of the computer tools to make it possible have not been developed. But once the project is up and running, Clarke hopes to replicate it across Australia.

`We hope to develop it as a module,' he says. `Then we could transfer the idea to the arid zone or to tropical North Queensland. In this way, scientists and local communities can combine in meaningful conservation. If gathering this sort of data were left to scientists from Canberra, it would be enormously costly.'

The Bookmark project is at the forefront of a revolution known as biological informatics: employing computers to gather, store, combine, search, analyse, present and apply biological information. Advances in computing and the establishment of the Web have made it possible to pull together and analyse information from different disciplines stored in many parts of the globe.

Australia, particularly the CSIRO, is a world leader in providing ways to achieve this. Which is just as well. Because the developed nations of the world have grand plans for biological informatics. And they could well be realised using CSIRO-developed software.

Last June in Paris the Megascience Forum of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development -- the association of the world's rich nations -- gave preliminary endorsement to a US$300 million project to make the more than 350 years worth of biological information stored in the Earth's museums and research institutions available to all via the World Wide Web. (The Megascience Forum is an inter-governmental committee of the OECD which deals with science projects too large for any single nation to handle.)

The project, called the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) by the working group which recommended it, is seen as an essential step for studying, conserving and utilising the world's biodiversity. And the task is urgent. According to Dr Peter Raven, Director of the Missouri Botanical Garden and an advisor to the US President on biodiversity, as many as a quarter of the Earth's species of plants, animals, fungi and microorganisms may be extinct by 2025, and three-quarters either extinct or on the way to extinction by the end of next century (see US biologist says sustainability the only path to peace)

This loss is compounded by enormous ignorance. …

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