Biodiversity in the Information Age

My 1985 Issues article was among the first to document and assess the problem of biodiversity in the context of public policy. It was intended to bring the extinction crisis to the attention of environmental policymakers, whose focus theretofore had been almost entirely on pollution and other problems of the physical environment. Several factors contributed to this disproportion: Physical events are simpler than biological ones, they are easier to measure, and they are more transparently relevant to human health. No senator’s spouse, it had been said, ever died of a species extinction.

The mid-1980s saw a steep increase in awareness concerning the living environment. In 1986, the National Academy of Sciences and the Smithsonian Institution cosponsored a major conference on biodiversity, assembling for the first time the scores of specialists representing the wide range of disciplines, from systematics and ecology to agriculture and forestry, that needed to merge their expertise in basic and applied research to address the critical questions. The papers were published in the book BioDiversity, which became an international scientific bestseller. The term biodiversity soon became a household word. By 1992, when I published The Diversity of Life, the scientific and popular literature on the subject had grown enormously. The Society of Conservation Biology emerged as one of the fastest-growing of all scientific societies. Membership in organizations dedicated to preserving biodiversity grew manyfold. Now there are a dozen new journals and shelves of technical and popular books on the topic.

Developing countries are in desperate need of advanced scientific institutions that can engage the energies of their brightest young people and encourage political leaders to create national science programs.

The past decade has witnessed the emergence of a much clearer picture of the magnitude of the biodiversity problem. Put simply, the biosphere has proved to be more diverse than was earlier supposed, especially in the case of small invertebrates and microorganisms. An entire domain of life, the Archaea, has been distinguished from the bacteria, and a huge, still mostly unknown and energetically independent biome–the subterranean lithoautotrophic microbial ecosystems–has been found to extend three kilometers or more below the surface of Earth.

In the midst of this exuberance of life forms, however, the rate of species extinction is rising, chiefly through habitat destruction. Most serious of all is the conversion of tropical rainforests, where most species of animals and plants live. The rate has been estimated, by two independent methods, to fall between 100 and 10,000 times the prehuman background rate, with 1,000 times being the most widely accepted figure. The price ultimately to be paid for this cataclysm is beyond measure in foregone scientific knowledge; new pharmaceutical and other products; ecosystems services such as water purification and soil renewal; and, not least, aesthetic and spiritual benefits.

Concerned citizens and scientists have begun to take action. A wide range of solutions is being proposed to stanch the hemorrhaging of biodiversity at the regional as well as the global level. Since 1985, the effort has become more precisely charted, economically efficient, and politically sensitive.

The increasing attention given to the biodiversity crisis highlights the inadequacy of biodiversity research itself. As I stressed in 1985, Earth remains in this respect a relatively unexplored planet. The total number of described and formally named species of organisms (plant, animal, and microbial) has grown, but not by much, and today is generally believed to lie somewhere between 1.5 million and 1.8 million. The full number, including species yet to be discovered, has been estimated in various accounts that differ according to assumptions and methods from an improbably low 3.5 million to an improbably high 100 million. By far the greatest fraction of the unknown species will be insects and microorganisms.

Since the current hierarchical, binomial classification was introduced by Carolus Linnaeus 250 years ago, 10 percent, at a guess, of the species of organisms have been described. Many systematists believe that most and perhaps nearly all of the remaining 90 percent can be discovered, diagnosed, and named in as little as one-10th that time–about 25 years. That potential is the result of two developments needed to accelerate biodiversity studies. The first is information technology: It is now possible to obtain high-resolution digitized images of specimens, including the smallest of invertebrates, that are better than can be perceived through conventional dissecting microscopes. Type specimens, sequestered in museums scattered around the world and thus unavailable except by mail or visits to the repositories, can now be photographed and made instantly available everywhere as “e-types” on the Internet. Recently, the New York Botanical Garden made available the images of almost all its types of 90,000 species. In a parallel effort, Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology has laid plans to publish e-types of its many thousands of insect species. As the total world collection of primary type specimens is brought online, covering most or all of perhaps one million species that can be imaged in sufficient detail to be illustrated in this manner, the rate of taxonomic reviews of named species and the discovery of new ones can be accelerated 10 times or more over that of predigital taxonomy.

The second revolution about to catapult biodiversity studies forward is genomics. With base pair sequencing automated and growing ever faster and less expensive, it will soon be possible to describe bacterial and archaean species by partial DNA sequences and to subsequently identify them by genetic bar-coding. As genomic research proceeds as a broader scientific enterprise, microorganism taxonomy will follow close behind.

The new biodiversity studies will lead logically to an electronic encyclopedia of life designed to organize and make immediately available everything known about each of the millions of species. Its composition will be led for a time by the industrialized countries. However, the bulk of the work must eventually be done in the developing countries. The latter contain most of the world’s species, and they are destined to benefit soonest from the research. Developing countries are in desperate need of advanced scientific institutions that can engage the energies of their brightest young people and encourage political leaders to create national science programs. The technology needed is relatively inexpensive, and its transfer can be accomplished quickly. The discoveries generated can be applied directly to meet the concerns of greatest importance to the geographic region in which the research is conducted, being equally relevant to agriculture, medicine, and economic growth.

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Cite this Article

Wilson, Edward O. “Biodiversity in the Information Age.” Issues in Science and Technology 19, no. 4 (Summer 2003).

Vol. XIX, No. 4, Summer 2003