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Huge Online 'Encyclopedia of Life' Project Begins

In a whale-sized project, the world's scientists plan to compile everything they know about all of Earth's 1.8 million known species and put it all on one Web site, open to everyone.

The effort, called the Encyclopedia of Life, will include species descriptions, pictures, maps, videos, sound, sightings by amateurs, and links to entire genomes and scientific journal papers.

Its first pages of information will be shown Wednesday in Washington, where the massive effort is being announced by some of the world's leading scientific institutions and universities. The project will take about 10 years to complete.

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"It's an interactive zoo," said James Edwards, who will be the encyclopedia's executive director. Edwards currently helps run a global biodiversity information system.

If the new encyclopedia progresses as planned, it should fill about 300 million pages, which, if lined up end-to-end, would be more than 52,000 miles long, able to stretch twice around the world at the equator.

The MacArthur and Sloan foundations have given a total $12.5 million to pay for the first 2½ years of the massive effort, but it will be free and accessible to everyone.

The pages can be adjusted so that they provide useful information for both a schoolchild and a research biologist alike, with an emphasis on encouraging "citizen-scientists" to add their sightings.

While amateurs can contribute in clearly marked side pages, the key detail and science parts of the encyclopedia will be compiled and reviewed by experts.

"It could be a very big leap in the way we do science," said Cristian Samper, acting secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, one of seven museums, universities and labs to launch the encyclopedia. "This is a project that is so big, not even the Smithsonian, could do it by itself. It is a global effort."

Other institutions helping head the undertaking include Harvard University, Chicago's Field Museum, the Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts, the Biodiversity Heritage Library Consortium, the Missouri Botanical Garden and the Atlas of Living Australia.

The project will try to be like Mexico's Conabio compilation of all 70,000 named species in that country, but bigger, Edwards said.

"They are going to do something extremely ambitious and important," said Conabio's founding director Jorge Soberon, now a professor at the University of Kansas.

For more than a decade scientists have tried to compile simply a list of all species on Earth, but failed. It's been too complicated, too expensive and too cumbersome.

This effort may succeed where the others have faltered because of new search engine technology — the same kind that Google uses.

It will scan the Web for scientific information on the Internet and "mash up" all of the material into a file that then gets reviewed by expert curators, said Harvard's James Hanken, a steering committee member.

For scientists, especially those in developing countries, this can open up new worlds of research, said Samper, who has worked as a biologist in Colombia studying South American plants. That means more science from different areas, he said. Research papers that used to limited to northern science libraries will be easily accessible in remote Botswana, he said.

"The democracy of science can't be overemphasized," he added.

The democracy will be spread to people without PhDs. Edwards said the public will be able to send information to scientists that they wouldn't have otherwise.

"The public can contribute, and that makes a big difference," Soberon said. "It's one thing to be a passive spectator and another when the public can contribute."

This could be crucial in tracking invasive species, Samper said.

Sample demonstration pages of the polar bear show what the scientists hope to do. It offers pictures, maps, research and data on the molecular biology, genetics, reproduction diet of the polar bear.

The information can be accessed at the "novice" level, which says: "Polar bears inhabit Arctic sea ice, water, islands and continental coastlines."

At "expert" level, it says: "Polar bears occur in low numbers throughout their range and are most abundant in shallow water areas near shore or where current or upwellings increase biological productivity near ice areas associated with open water, polynyas or lead systems."

As new species are discovered each day, they'll be added, scientists say. They estimate that Earth actually has 8 million species or so, but only one-quarter of them have been identified and named as separate species.

After that, long-gone species — the fossil world — will be added.

"If we don't include dinosaurs, we'll have lost 6-year-old boys," Edwards said.

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