Sunday, March 2, 2008

New projects preserve biodiversity of the planet...

(Photo of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault by Mari Tefre)

The New York Times announced two major multi-million dollar projects this week that will contribute to the preservation and understanding of the biodiversity of the planet. The first, Near Arctic, Seed Vault Is a Fort Knox of Food, is about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway. This new seed bank is engineered to store and protect samples from every seed collection in the world.

With plant species disappearing at an alarming rate, scientists and governments are creating a global network to store seeds and sprouts, precious genetic resources that may be needed for the world’s food supply to adapt to climate change, writes Elisabeth Rosenthal.

The Global Vault is part of an effort to gather and systematize information about plants and their genes, which may be “more valuable than gold” since the FAO has reported that three-quarters of crop biodiversity has been lost in the last century.

The second, The Encyclopedia of Life, No Bookshelf Required, is about the launch of Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson’s project to catalogue the 1.8 million known species with room for the millions of other species as they are discovered.

An international team of scientists has introduced the first 30,000 pages of the Encyclopedia of Life and they predict they will have the other 1.77 million within 10 years. The species currently listed online come mainly from databases of fish, amphibians, and plants, and the authors hope the scientific community will pool its knowledge on the pages, writes Carl Zimmer.

Major advances have made the goal more realistic than past attempts, since biologists can now consult databases that hold DNA sequences from hundreds of thousands of species. And ten of the largest natural history libraries in the world are scanning millions of pages of scientific literature, which computers are text-mining to add information to species pages.

Both programs will become increasingly more important as we face biodiversity loss caused by human-induced climate change.