FAQ Responses

Does this effort compete with the effort to save species close to extinction?

“Real protection of endangered species requires knowledge of all the other species in an ecosystem…species do not exist in a vacuum. Therefore, this [Project] will aid in conservation efforts. Right now, conservation efforts are operating largely in the dark…some species receive considerable attention at the expense of thousands of others. Knowing about the Earth’s biodiversity will allow us to shift from the protection of single endangered species to the protection of endangered ecosystems (which will protect far more species in the long run).”

– David Hillis, Co-Director of the Center for Computational Biology, University of Texas, Austin

“Absolutely not. Indeed, one of the most profound outcomes of this Project is that it will allow us to understand the fundamental nature and mechanisms of extinction, which will ultimately allow us to bring the current runaway rates of extinction back under control. Extinction is inevitable; indeed, natural. A dollar spent on understanding the biodiversity that is out there, will translate to tens, hundreds or perhaps even thousands of dollars saved in the long run for preventing future extinctions. In fact, the real reason for the push for such a short 25-year time frame on this project is that we want to document species before they are gone. Having all the species documented [might allow] future generations [to] be able to use the information obtained through the ALL Species effort (e.g., DNA samples, geographic distribution data, ecological association data, etc.) to resurrect entire species, or even entire ecosystems back into existence. The same cannot be said for the majority of present-day extinctions, which are going on without us even knowing about them.”

– Richard Pyle, Bishop Museum, Hawaii
How will this project benefit the human race?

“That question is sort of like asking, ‘Why should the average man on the street care if we know all the elements in the periodic table?’ — or, ‘Why should he care if we know the entire human genome sequence?’ — or, ‘Why should he care if physicists can identify all the subatomic particles?’ Most ‘men on the street’ wouldn’t have a clue why these things are so important — but only because they don’t make the connection between these fundamental aspects of the physical world, and how their lives (or the lives of their descendants) are deeply enhanced by this knowledge. The man on the street gets into his car not realizing that many of its components could only have been created with the intimate knowledge of chemistry that was gained by elucidating the periodic table. He’ll call his doctor on his cellular phone, not knowing the role that an understanding of quantum physics plays in making cellular telephone technology work. He also won’t realize that neither the diagnosis that his doctor makes for his ailment, nor the drug prescribed for its cure could have come about without the success of the HGP (Human Genome Project).

In much the same way, most people won’t intuitively understand how their lives, and their futures, will be greatly affected by the knowledge gained from a complete inventory of global biodiversity. The most exciting, and most profound reasons why this project is so important haven’t even yet been realized. Indeed, they likely *cannot* be realized until we get there. Just as the pioneer chemists who completed the periodic table of elements could not foresee the importance of plastic in society (among millions of other examples), and just as the researchers who pioneered the field of quantum physics could not foresee its role in cellular telephones (again, among many current and future examples), and just as we are only beginning to capitalize on the fruits of the HGP … the most profound benefits [to the human race] will only be recognized in hindsight. What is clear, however, is that this effort is indeed on par with these other major milestones [development of agriculture, the industrial revolution, and so on] in the advance of human society.

– Richard Pyle, Bishop Museum, Hawaii

Policies made from a position of “bio-ignorance”, however well-intentioned, may have drastic consequences to life on Earth and consequently to our own survival. Regardless of the cause, trend, or rate of species extinction, intelligent, scientifically informed policies in conservation efforts and bioresource management can be made only through knowledge of species and an understanding of their relationships (Q.D. Wheeler, Biodiversity and Conservation 4, 476-489, 1995).
Inventory

When will you know that you have “All” identified?

“Basically, the word “All” is used for its power, to indicate the desire for an all-inclusive description of biodiversity. As with all such projects, realists have to understand that we will never have absolutely complete knowledge of anything.

In an absolute sense, we won’t ever know for sure, and there likely will be a few occasional species that continue to be discovered for some time after “completion” of Earth’s species list. However, we will know that we are essentially complete when we can take a random sample of organisms from any spot on Earth and identify them all. Right now, we can’t begin to do that for ANY spot of Earth.

We want the list of species do be complete enough so that we can do everyday biology without encountering so many unknown species. All similar projects face a similar challenge…sequencing of the human genome is said to be “completed” even though there are still tiny gaps and lots of variation among humans that we don’t know about yet. But, having the “complete” sequence allows us to ask and answer questions that were never before possible.”

– David Hillis, Co-Director of the Center for Computational Biology, University of Texas, Austin
What are the current estimates for what is unknown?

Since the first modern scientific surveys of life on Earth begun by Linnaeus and his contemporaries in the mid-eighteenth century, ~1.7 million species have been identified and described. Estimates of undiscovered species on Earth range from 10 million to 100 million and The US National Science Board ( 1989) predicted that as many as 25% or more of the Earth’s species may become extinct by 2014. Reaching an agreed upon quantity for the status of biodiversity and the trend of species extinction is controversial. The fact that these two topics can ignite deep controversy exemplifies the appalling absence of thorough scientific knowledge and information upon which to base policy.

How will ALL handle disagreements among taxonomists about species definitions?

While we recognize the importance of the species debate, we also recognize that ALL Species cannot solve it but hope that our efforts will contribute to an acceptable resolution. Our Advisors include scientists from all over the world, and include taxonomists, systematists, ecologists, conservationists, and increasingly, scientists from biotech and computer science. ALL Species does not advocate or dictate any one approach to the discovery or description of biodiversity.

We are building a comprehensive encyclopedia of life, which will include all levels of species information (including phylogeny), and which we believe will be of tremendous value to all biologists. Our intent is to enable anyone to reach just what he or she needs from the vast amounts of well-documented raw data (the specimens). If All Species does its job right—taxonomists will assign a hypothesis they call “a species” in far more efficient ways. Then systematists will construct phylogenies that access much larger and well-documented information. Ecologists will be able to discover and study biodiversity patterns at many scales with a greater amount of available distributional data. And, the general public will have much greater access to the vast and amazing biodiversity of this planet.

What current technologies make this project a more realistic proposition than before?

“I don’t see the technological challenges being as great as they were for the program to put a human on the moon, for instance, and I think that the potential payoff for human society is far greater. Past efforts to describe the Earth’s species have been hindered by a number of factors, including

  • The difficulties of travel to remote sites
  • Impediments to the flow of information around the world
  • The need for biologists to physically examine type specimens in remote museums
  • The limited tools (as well as the limited availability of tools) for comparing and analyzing species
  • The expense and delay of traditional publication
  • The limited number of people trained in biological systematics

Solutions to these limitations have come from:

  • Advances in transportation
  • The information revolution (especially the development of the World Wide Web and the Internet)
  • The proposed development of on-line databases (with detailed images of all type specimens, for instance)
  • The development of new tools such as rapid DNA sequencing and phylogenetic analysis
  • The development of electronic publication
  • Renewed interest and support of biological systematics

These developments have reduced (or will reduce) all of those limitations.”

– David Hillis, Co-Director of the Center for Computational Biology, University of Texas, Austin
“There are many, many ways that new technology can dramatically enhance taxonomic productivity. Assuming something on the order of 1.5-1.8 million described species over the past two and a half centuries, and assuming that the total number is in the range of about 15 million to 100 million species, the 25-year timeframe is only realistic if we can manage to increase the average rate of new species descriptions by at least two, and possibly three orders of magnitude. Is it possible? A perfect model example of this is the Human Genome Project (HGP), which finished ahead of schedule, and under-budget. This was truly amazing, given that at its outset, a large section of the biological community deemed it altogether impossible, let alone feasible for the projected budget and target date. The success was due primarily to two factors: original, creative thinking, and increased capability of technology.

– Richard Pyle, Bishop Museum, Hawaii

What about species that become extinct during the 25 years of the project?

“As long as there is at least one individual species is alive and known from live-collected material as opposed to fossil material, we will catalog it. If there are none alive, we can alert others to catalog it. Keeping a red list or a list of extinct species is something others are doing, and a distraction to our main mission: to discover, identify and catalog the millions of unknown living species on Earth.”

– Kevin Kelly, Chairman, ALL Species Governing Board

How has taxonomy changed during the past 250 years?

“In the second half of the twentieth century, when the whole process of exploration and discovery could have been speeded up, we had the molecular revolution, and exploration in biodiversity was slowed proportionately. It’s been marginalized in academic biology and given very little support. That’s beginning to change now, and this is part of the whole issue of biodiversity. Thanks to the revolution in genomics and in bioinformatics – computer based access of genetic information including digitized images of specimens – I figure we can speed up the exploration, description, and analysis of the world’s biodiversity by as much as 100-fold.”

– Edward O. Wilson, Honorary Curator of Entomology, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University

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How will genomics help in the actual discovery and identification of new species?

There are already known ribosomal RNA sequences for about 50,000 species. If we continue to collect sequences of such genes, we can use them to build a phylogenetic Tree of Life for all known species. We can then take a sample of any organisms, amplify and sequence these same genes, and immediately classify a particular organism within the framework of the known species. We can also tell in many cases if the organisms are not closely related to any known species, and what its closest relatives are. In other cases, we will know that the organism is similar to some known species, and that information will greatly aid us in sending the organism to a specialist for further work…advancing and automating this technology will allow biologists to operate anywhere in the world on any group of organisms.”

– David Hillis, Co-Director of the Center for Computational Biology, University of Texas, Austin

How many new species have been discovered by the ALL Species Foundation so far?

The ALL Species Foundation isn’t describing species itself…it is working to facilitate species discovery and description in any way possible…the goal of ALL is to stimulate the development of tools and resources to get all of Earth’s species discovered and described. It isn’t in the business of taking the science away from individual biologists.

How is all this work going to get done with a limited number of taxonomists?

The current estimate on the number of taxonomists in the world is 10,000. For the ALL Species Inventory to succeed, it is clear that these taxonomists will need an army of apprentices, or parataxonomists, to assist them in the initial inventory efforts and sorting of specimens, i.e., all the work preparatory to the expert identification.

Successful models for enlisting the efforts of local residents, apprentices or parataxonomists exist for inventory efforts in Costa Rica and Papua New Guinea. The ongoing success of the Great Smoky Mountains All Taxa Biotic Inventory (ATBI) is a direct result of not only world class taxonomic expertise, but also numerous volunteers who assist in the initial collection of specimens. These parataxonomists models will be applied to the ALL Species Inventory.

“The word parataxonomist was borrowed directly from paramedic, with the idea that the parataxonomist is to the taxonomist what the paramedic is to a doctor. The parataxonomist is completely field-based in or at the edge of a large wildland area, and he/she spends her/his time finding the species in that wildland area, preparing the specimens, and getting them out to the collections in museums and elsewhere.

The ideal candidates are rural folk, men and women, who have passed through the local school system and are now out in the work force, and live in or very near the site where they are going to work as parataxonomists.

– Dan Janzen, Professor, Biology, University of Pennsylvania

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How much does an inventory cost?

At present, the estimated average cost of finding and describing and putting on the internet a single species that has been collected as part of a large inventory effort tends to be $700 to $2,000 per species. It is expected that as the ALL Species project unfolds, economies of scale will substantially reduce this estimate.

“The ALL Species Project could be completed for a fraction of the money currently spent on space exploration. But what is the most intrinsically fascinating aspect of space exploration that keeps the man on the street interested? Without doubt, it is the notion that life may exist elsewhere in the universe. With such a fascination for life outside of Earth, isn’t it appalling that we’re only aware of something like 1.5% to 10% of the life with which we share our own home planet?

The field of taxonomy has historically been WOEFULLY under funded. This is largely due to a corresponding under appreciation for its products. The ALL Species Project could be completed for a fraction of the money currently spent on space exploration. But what is the most intrinsically fascinating aspect of space exploration that keeps the man on the street interested? Without doubt, it is the notion that life may exist elsewhere in the universe. With such a fascination for life outside of Earth, isn’t it appalling that we’re only aware of something like 1.5% to 10% of the life with which we share our own home planet?”

– Richard Pyle, Bishop Museum, Hawaii
Outreach

How many species will each scientist need to discover?

“Absolutely not…these are just scientific advisors who have agreed to get the project going and advise the ALL Species Foundation on how to proceed. The project will require work and input from many more biologists…our goal is to get everyone who is interested in contributing involved. The project will require the input of many thousands of people from all over the world to be successful.”

– David Hillis, Co-Director of the Center for Computational Biology, University of Texas, Austin

Why did you choose to get involved with this project?

“Discovering and understanding the diversity of life on Earth is not just a grand intellectual challenge… it is also critically important for humans everywhere. Every aspect of our lives depends on the Earth’s biota… from the food we eat to the air we breathe to the clothes we wear to the diseases we contract. The fact is that we are largely ignorant of our own planet and how it works. As a biologist, I find discovery of new knowledge about life exciting; as an outdoor lover, I am stimulated by the variety and beauty of life; and as a human, I want the knowledge to help us live better lives with the least amount of damage to the Earth’s ecosystem. Knowing about all the Earth’s species is a critical step in understanding the planet on which we live.”

– David Hillis, Co-Director of the Center for Computational Biology, University of Texas, Austin

“I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been invited to participate in this project at all. So, it wasn’t so much a “choice” on my part, as much as it was an honor. The concept of the project was first explained to me by John McCosker (of the California Academy of Sciences), when we bumped into each other at a meeting in La Paz in June of 2000. The concept sounded fantastic, so I was delighted when Ryan Phelan invited me to the first official meeting in September of 2000. The reason the decision to accept the invitation was such a “no-brainer”, in that my professional life is dedicated to the discovery of new species of organisms on deep coral reefs. I am primarily interested in fishes, but the region I explore is also home to untold numbers of new invertebrate species as well. I plan to spend the rest of my active career engaged in this sort of exploration, so the ALL Species Project is the perfect conduit through which I can channel my efforts.”

– Richard Pyle, Bishop Museum, Hawaii
Organization/Funding

Is this a virtual organization?

As an international entity with over a hundred advisors representing scores of institutions and organizations from all over the world, ALL Species has always communicated virtually. Even in a decentralized mode of operation, this should not change.

The scale of the mission demands a distributed network of opportunistic partnerships. Full-time employees at a centralized location is an aspect of the mission that will be sporadic as need or capacity dictates.

In addition, the importance and utility of the web as a virtual tool for research, education, and dissemination of biodiversity knowledge have always been an integral component of ALL’s mission. The ultimate goal to build an online Encyclopedia of Life replete with web pages for every species which contain the sum of all biological data known, remains central to our long-range vision of success.

Do you think that the 25-year time line is realistic?

A paradigm shift within the taxonomic community is needed in order to achieve the 25-year mission to discover, describe, and disseminate the entire encyclopedia of life. ALL Species Foundation intends to initiate and enable this shift through integration, innovation, and the acceleration of new techniques and new approaches.

“I’ve argued that we will need new ways to search for, describe, discuss, and catalog biodiversity, and I think most of the [ALL Species Foundation] board agrees. Basically, I see the search for “all species” as an important goal, and that we can make it complete enough to satisfy most of our needs within 25 years. I don’t think the job will technically ever be completely finished, but I think that is true of almost any “complete” listings of anything… An emphasis on “All Species” will highlight many of the problems of detecting, identifying, and describing closely related lineages, as well as highlight the problems of groups that don’t form clear lineages.”

– David Hillis, Co-Director of the Center for Computational Biology, University of Texas, Austin

“Yes, it’s certainly possible. It’s a daunting task, but there are a few advantages that the next 25 years offer, which the previous 250 years did not. First, there is the ever-accelerating pace of technology… Although technology will be the main wind in the ALL Species Project’s sails; it alone cannot make the 25-year goal achievable. Generous portions of … original, creative thinking are also going to be needed.”

– Richard Pyle, Bishop Museum, Hawaii

Accomplishments

Looking back over the past two years, how would you describe ALL’s most important accomplishments?

Since the initial planning meeting at the Cal Academy in Sept 2000, ALL has raised a total of $1.2 million. All of those funds have been spent over the past two years, primarily on software development of the ALL Species Toolkit (now moving into open source), conferences and workshops, and the building of strategic alliances with a range of institutions (NPS, NSF, CI, the systematic collections, etc). In addition, ALL helped create a new NSF Fund of $14M—all of which will go towards the researchers-none to ALL for general operations.

There are several specific areas where ALL Species has made a difference in its start-up phase. Among the most significant are:

1) INCREASED PUBLIC AWARENESS

Getting the all-species idea out in the public domain has been a focus of everyone working on this project. When we started, few people seemed aware of how little of biodiversity is actually known….now it is more widely accepted that we know less than 10 percent. It’s still a bit of a jump for people to understand WHY it’s important to know more…but we are starting to make progress there as well. We have managed to create, or at least contribute to an intensification or focus of interest in basic whole organism biodiversity that might not otherwise have occurred. The increased public awareness has helped create the new NSF/PBI Fund of $14M and is one key example.

Ryan Phelan and Kevin Kelly, ALL Species Foundation

I am optimistic that there has been, at some level, a sort of paradigm shift in the perspective of many people—primarily in the form of seeing things more globally. It may be subtle and hard to quantify, but nevertheless I think it is very real. We may very well find ourselves at the start of the inflection point on the curve of biodiversity documentation (i.e., “something happens here –>”, only future history will tell. If so, I think that ALL has played (and still will yet play) a critical part in fostering that sharp bend in the curve.

Rich Pyle, Bishop Museum

I was impressed by the list of initiatives that ALL has spawned; it’s an incredible accomplishment especially given the scarce resources. I send a big “Thank You” to Ryan and to her staff for the trojan work they did and their many achievements; to Terry Erwin for providing the scientific underpinning that helped to define the vision, and for moving the science forwards with inventory protocols and outreach. I look forward to the next phase of ALL Species!

Deborah Brosnan, Sustainable Ecosystems

2) CONSOLIDATION WITHIN THE TAXONOMIC COMMUNITY

ALL has established a network of diverse but like minded people with an interest in expanding knowledge of life on the planet for common good. ALL has brought together over a hundred scientists from around the world that now share a common vision with ALL Species as well as instigating various institutions who now work together as strategic partners. At the Harvard and Mexico City Summits, taxonomists from diverse groups united in signing ALL’s declaration to discover all life on earth in one human generation. This is no small feat among a community who is accustomed to working as individuals and is understandably often quite competitive for the limited funds available for their work.

Ryan Phelan and Kevin Kelly, ALL Species Foundation

3) AGITATION AND STIMULATION AS AN OUTSIDER

As a new and innocent player in the taxonomy game who questions the rules, traditions, and pecking orders, ALL challenges the attitudes, mindsets, and perspectives of the players. We have established a network of diverse but like minded people with an interest in expanding knowledge of life on this planet for the common good. We have managed to create, or at least contribute to an intensification or focus of interest in basic whole organism biodiversity that might not otherwise have occurred. We have established an infrastructure to foster and manage private investment in biodiversity knowledge that has the wide support of the biological community. We have supported and stimulated work in biodiversity informatics to help create and manage this knowledge. We have shown that technology exists to harness existing knowledge and to do this cheaply and effectively.

Jim Croft, Australian National Botanic Garden

4) PROMOTION OF BIG IDEAS AND A BIG VISION

ALL has crystallized the ideas that have sprung forth from national and international forums on the subject of biodiversity and its discovery. In so doing, ALL has provided a more substantial vision that is now being echoed from both within and outside these forums. Let’s keep focused on making progress towards the goals professed by ALL. In truth, ALL will be with us for a very long time to come.

Michael E. Irwin, University of Illinois

Failure to discover earth’s species is a dismal alternative, neither science nor society can afford to accept. I appreciate [ALL’s] commitment and efforts very much and it has helped the community to think big as they must.

Quentin Wheeler, National Science Foundation