Prof’s ‘Encyclopedia of Life’ Project Launches

The Encyclopedia of Life (EOL)—the brainchild of Harvard professor emeritus Edward O. Wilson—launched its first 30,000 entries yesterday, making a small dent in the 1.8 million species the online database intends to chronicle by 2017.

EOL plans to provide textual, photographic, and graphical descriptions of every organism on the planet in order to provide comparative data for different species, as well as a means of identifying large-scale trends in species growth and movement, according to the press release for the Web site’s unveiling.

“It will point to the holes in knowledge that require further research—we don’t really know what we know,” said Brian D. Farrell, a Harvard biology professor who produced a page for EOL about a beetle species known as Pissodes strobi.

Farrell said that the site will provide “one-button access to the genetic sequences and the descriptive literature that’s housed in the libraries of the world.”

The site could help track invasive and infectious species, allowing scientists to predict where such organisms might flourish based on climatic factors, Farrell added.

The idea for the project—first announced in May 2007—was dreamt up by Wilson in a 2003 op-ed in the science journal TRENDS in Ecology and Evolution.

“Comparative biology, crossing the digital divide, has begun a still largely unheralded revolution: the exploration and analysis of biodiversity at a vastly accelerated pace,” Wilson wrote at the time. “Its principal achievement will be a single-portal electronic encyclopedia of life.”

Wilson could not be reached for comment last night, as he was at the Technology, Entertainment and Design Conference in Monterey, California for EOL’s launch.

Although Farrell compared the site to wikipedia.org, whose pages can be edited live by users, EOL’s pages will be peer-reviewed by experts instead of being open to changes by the general public.

“There will be a person responsible for verifying the science that is on each of the pages,” said Terry Collins, a spokesman for EOL. “The pages that are there have all been given the scientific seal of approval.”

The project is being conducted in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution, the Field Museum of Chicago, the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, the Biodiversity Heritage Library consortium, and the Missouri Botanical Garden.

EOL got its financial start in 2005 with the backing of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which provided a $10 million seed grant, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which contributed an additional $2.5 million to the project.

According to EOL’s home page, the site received so much traffic yesterday that last night it temporarily reverted to its pre-launch state.

—Staff writer Aditi Balakrishna can be reached at balakris@fas.harvard.edu.