An ancient Indian proverb said that “nature was not an inheritance from our parents, but a loan from our children”. The 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity, signed by the United Nations, states that “the conservation of biodiversity is in the common interest of all humankind.
In the preamble to this agreement, it is stated that the sustainable use of this biological diversity, as well as its conservation, is of critical importance to satisfy the world’s needs in terms of food and health, and that for this it is essential, among other things, access to and participation in new technologies.
Classifying what surrounds us is key to knowing and understanding it.
Taxonomy is the science that is in charge of classifying, and in biology, it is really complex to make it in the impressive tailor’s box that is our nature. It is considered that in the last 250 years almost two million species have been described, and there is a great discussion in science about the total number that inhabit the planet Earth. Numbers dance between ten and one hundred million, so one understands the enormous knowledge gap that remains to be discovered says The Gaylord Box Exchange
In addition to the great contribution to our common learning about the world around us, it is believed that 56% of the 150 most prescribed drugs in the United States have biological origin (in the image below, the marine organism Ecteinascidia turbinata, from which the Spanish antitumour Yondelis is obtained). Knowing a little more about our nature could help us in the research of new medicines for the care of our health.
However, in order to classify living beings, a task done by taxonomists, there are traditionally important problems that new technologies can help to solve.
On the one hand, scientists had to travel to know the species of remote regions, which is undoubtedly an economic problem. On the other hand, in order to carry out the studies, they had to access biological collections in person, in order to physically examine the different types of species. This meant an enormous slowdown in research, as well as a late analysis of the new species that were being described.
Species are classified using what are known as types, which are specimens used as an “example model” of a specific species, and which are kept in the collection of a particular institution. In view of the obvious difficulties involved in the physical study of these specimens, the creation of digital collections with e-types to facilitate knowledge of living organisms has been sought for some time. Many of these species are already on the net, on sites such as the Global Biodiversity Information Platform (GBIF).
Some projects, such as the Global Plants Initiative, are already beginning to crystallize in the digitalization of all the information collected so far manually on our vegetation. This project, created by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Botanical Gardens and the University of Munich (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität – LMU), seeks to digitize more than two million historically archived types in these entities, as well as 16,000 archives, 14,000 photos and 6,500 drawings. Other centres, such as the Botanical Garden in New York or various entities in Holland and Sweden, the Herbarium at Harvard University or the Smithsonian Institute have also taken initiatives in this direction.
GPS technology has even been used, together with digital imaging techniques, to show distribution patterns of different biological species. This type of monitoring can also help in projects of conservation and repopulation of flora and fauna of diverse habitats.
Exploring biodiversity in the digital age
Most of the initiatives to bring ICTs closer to taxonomic studies have been carried out in plants, especially thanks to the launch of virtual portals of herbaria and biological collections of various entities throughout the planet. However, the digitization of knowledge associated with animal species is still shying away from the 2.0 revolution.
Some European projects, within the FP7 Research Framework Programme, such as MARBIGEN (on marine biodiversity) or ViBrant (which combines efforts to create a virtual platform on biological diversity), work so that the impact of new technologies helps to know a little better the species that surround us. Also from Greece, we seek to apply 3D digital imaging techniques to the study of living beings, in order to have microscopically detailed representations of small animals, in particular polychaetes.
The aim of this research team, led by Dr. Christos Arvanitidis, is “to provide a digital representation of each museum specimen, and to make it accessible on a virtual level for any scientist and nature lover who wants to know more about biological diversity”.
To this end, not only will we be able to access the planet’s wealth (it is estimated that more than 27,000 species become extinct each year), but more and better scientific knowledge will also be developed.