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Encyclopedia of Life grows; clues on ageing, pests

Date: 24-Aug-09
Country: NORWAY
Author: Alister Doyle, Environment Correspondent

OSLO - An online encyclopedia aiming to describe every type of animal and plant on the planet has reached 170,000 entries and is helping research into aging, climate change and even the spread of insect pests.

The "Encyclopedia of Life" (www.eol.org), a project likely to cost $100 million launched in 2007, says it wants to describe all the 1.8 million known species from apples to zebras within a decade.

"We're picking up speed," James Edwards, EOL Executive Director based at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, said Sunday of the 170,000 entries with content in a common format vetted by experts. A year ago, it had 30,000 entries.

He said everyone from scientists to schoolchildren could use the EOL as a "field guide" or contribute a photograph or an observation of an animal in an area where it was not found before, in some cases a sign of a changing climate.

The Encyclopedia was aiding scientists who look at human aging, for instance, by examining the widely differing lifespans of related species.

A Latin American bat, Tadarida brasiliensis, lives far longer than mice relatives of a similar size, perhaps because its body has a mechanism that limits damage to protein in its cells. And some butterflies that feed on fruit live longer than related species.

"It's working really nicely, the community of scientists working on aging have adopted the EOL," Edwards told Reuters.

And the Encyclopedia was seeking to help combat pests such as moth from the Balkans that has spread fast across Europe in the past two decades. It attacks the leaves of horse chestnut trees and makes them brown by mid-summer.

MOTH PEST

The moth, Cameraria ohridella, "is now more or less throughout Europe and poses a threat to ecosystems in Southeast Asia, North America and elsewhere - wherever the beautiful horse chestnut trees occur," said David Lees of the Natural History Museum in London and French agricultural research group INRA.

The EOL said it would help "public recognition and awareness of such invasive species through detailed descriptions and maps, helping to slow their global spread and enable more rapid and effective remedial measures."

And the EOL was trying to help researchers find out how global warming may affect species, such as by making them move to cooler habitats.

A problem for many biologists is that they often study just one species so do not know if their findings apply more widely, said James Hanken, director of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology and chair of the EOL Steering Committee.

"There are often studies of individual species -- insects or frogs or bird -- but people don't have access to information about other species in the same area," he told Reuters. "This holds back studies of climate change on biodiversity."

Among other projects, the encyclopedia was aiming to expand with fossil species. And it was working on regional versions focused on life in Australia, the Netherlands or China.

The EOL said it won extra funding of $12.5 million from two private foundations that have contributed in the past. Edwards said the project still needed more funds.

One problem is that 20,000 new species are described every year -- and estimates of the number of species on the planet range up to 100 million.

(Editing by Matthew Jones)

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