Biodiversity databases: Biodiversity information on every desktop

provided by National Science Foundation

ccess to information about the world's biodiversity is badly needed by a wide range of users, say resource managers, policy-makers, conservationists, scientists and the general public. In order to bring such information to the Internet, where it will be freely accessible to anyone, a consortium of 28 interested countries and intergovernmental organizations is coordinating plans to form the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF). GBIF will consist of a series of interconnected databases containing information about the world's living organisms, from bacteria to plants to mammals.

"GBIF will be an outstanding tool of great value," according to James Edwards, deputy assistant director for biological sciences at the National Science Foundation (NSF). Edwards chairs the interim steering committee for GBIF. In a recent issue of the journal Science, Edwards and coauthors discuss the GBIF. The current data about biodiversity are either scattered in many local databases, or reside on paper or other media not amenable to interactive searching. GBIF is a new framework for facilitating the digitization of biodiversity data, for compiling the data into searchable databases (both existing and newly formed ones), and for ensuring compatibility among these databases. In concert with other existing efforts, there will be developed, through GBIF, a complete Catalog of the Names of Known Organisms and search engines to mine the vast quantities of biodiversity data.

Biodiversity is distributed all over the earth, with the highest concentration in tropical regions, especially in developing countries, and in the oceans. In contrast, scientific information about biodiversity is largely concentrated in major centers in developed countries, especially in the scientific collections of the world's natural history museums, herbaria, and microorganismal repositories. At present, it is more likely that information on the plants of many regions of Africa is stored in an herbarium in Europe, for example, rather than in its source country, explains Edwards. Through GBIF, the intent is to change that, by making the data available to anyone, anywhere, who has access to the Internet.

The sustainable use and management of biodiversity will require that information about it be available when and where that information is needed by decision makers and scientists alike, Edwards says. Because biodiversity information is not immediately at hand, it is often not applied in policy or management decisions that affect the organisms involved, nor is that information readily accessible by research scientists.

At the heart of GBIF will be a catalog of the scientific names of all the world's species. Longer-term goals for GBIF are to develop both a digital library of biodiversity knowledge drawn from information available in print libraries and "Species Bank," a compilation of facts about each individual species. The target date for establishing GBIF is early in 2001. GBIF will be open and freely available to anyone with access to the World Wide Web. Most of its activities will be carried out within member countries, supported by their national funding programs.

"GBIF will aid in advancing scientific research in a host of areas, including systematics, conservation biology, ecology, agriculture, biomedicine, and environmental management," says Edwards. "It will serve the economic and quality-of-life interests of society and will provide a basis from which our knowledge of the natural world can grow rapidly and in a manner that avoids duplication of effort and expenditure."