New Life for Systematics

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Science  25 May 2007:
Vol. 316, Issue 5828, pp. 1097
DOI: 10.1126/science.1144898

Earlier this month, the launch of the encyclopedia of life, an electronic database for the currently known 1.8 million species of the world, was announced. This coincides with the tercentenary of the birth of Linnaeus, the Swedish scientist who laid the foundation for modern systematics that predictively names and classifies organisms. At last, a complete inventory of Earth's biota is considered achievable. This goal has injected new life into the notion of systematic science as the very underpinning of biodiversity conservation. But do we need such systematics, and is a biodiversity inventory—probably at a cost comparable to that of the human genome project—really essential for human and planetary well-being?

If contributions by thousands of taxonomists dating to Linnaeus are considered a collective enterprise, then systematics is surely a “big science” that has forged a fundamental knowledge base for all of biology. This discipline has provided not only scientific names that enable meaningful organization and dissemination of vast information, but also a robust foundation for comparative studies, with names ordered in a predictive classification based on phylogenetic patterns inferred from fossil, DNA, and other evidence. As Linnaeus said, “each object ought to be clearly grasped and clearly named, for if one neglects this, the great amount of things will necessarily overwhelm us and, lacking a common language, all exchange of knowledge will be in vain.”


Currently, the Earth's life inventory reflects a nearly global list for birds and mammals, but not of plant species. And many regions on Earth, especially in the Southern Hemisphere, remain poorly surveyed. The deep sea, soil, forest canopy, and inaccessible terrain remain the least explored habitats. Perhaps only 10% of fungi are named. Estimates for most invertebrates and microorganisms, including bacteria and archaebacteria, are even lower.

The good news is that with powerful molecular and computational approaches, strategic training, field work, and accelerated programs of documentation and data access in herbaria, museums, and DNA laboratories, a complete inventory may be only a few decades away. This global effort will rely on new cadres of young systematists circumscribing and classifying species at an unprecedented rate.

We need to complete this work, sooner rather than later, with priority on the most threatened organisms and on those most relevant to human livelihoods. An obvious reason is to help avert a looming extinction crisis by ensuring that species are named and conserved. Other pressing issues such as climate change (for which we need to address a rapidly changing carbon cycle) require assessing and encouraging plant diversity. It is time for a moratorium on further destruction of the world's wild vegetation and for much more science-based repair and restoration of what remains. We also need new approaches to agricultural, urban, and suburban living that will ensure a sustainable future with biodiversity. Such efforts should emphasize locally appropriate, multipurpose plantings. In fact, much of the information needed to support such new approaches already exists in botanic gardens, museums, and the scientific literature. The Encyclopedia of Life will make such information readily accessible to a broad range of users and hopefully promote integration of conservation efforts and other collaborations. However, the Encylopedia will defeat its fundamental purpose if it conveys a sense of an inventory job completed. It is just the beginning for much of Earth's poorly documented biota, and generating the supporting systematic data remains essential.

There are many young scientists wanting to contribute to understanding the Earth's biodiversity, but there are insufficient employment opportunities and teaching and research resources in place to support their enthusiasm. This has to change if we are to encourage future generations to explore the power of biodiversity to help us live sustainably.

We all would be immeasurably diminished if we sat idly by, witness to ongoing biological extinction, in a changing world where rare species may be tomorrow's salvation. Unless we curtail devastation of our biosphere, support systematic science, and harness available data along the way in global inventories and predictive classifications, life's great tapestry will indeed unravel, to our collective peril.

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