Deadly mushrooms, cute lizards, in full internet form

February 27th, 2008 - 9:11 am ICT by admin  

Washington, Feb 27 (DPA) Two European emperors and an uncounted number of innocent collectors have died over centuries at its hand. Now, starting Tuesday, the infamous, yellow-green death cap mushroom is front and centre as the “Encyclopaedia of Life” opens its website to the general public. The unveiling is the culmination of more than two years of work by scientists and internet experts intent on documenting the world’s 1.8 million known species in one place.

The website will eventually bring together for the first time ever scientific information that has accumulated in a hodgepodge of books, websites, scientific associations and libraries since the system of genus and species identification was invented some 300 years ago.

What’s more, the sponsors want feedback from users about how they like the website.

That’s why they’re sharing the first 24 species for which web pages have been completed, starting at 1200 GMT, a trial run to find out what works best for the general and scientific public.

The death cap mushroom, the yellow fever mosquito and the green anole lizard are among the chosen few for the launch, each with several dozen pages describing biochemistry, habitat, molecular and genetic structures and other items, with internet links for more details.

The undertaking is so huge that only this handful of 24 has been completed, while an added 30,000 species are being posted Tuesday as simplified place-holders for blanks which will be filled in.

Over the next 10 years, the sponsors hope to have at least one million species online - still only a fraction of the 8 to 50 million unidentified species they believe exist.

A devilish sense of humour accompanied some of the selections for the launch.

The death cap mushroom information, for example, was prepared by a Harvard University colleague of James Hanken, chairman of the steering committee for the Encyclopaedia of Life.

“Check out the death cap mushroom … and its notable victims,” suggested James Edwards, executive director of EOL, in a telephone interview last week. There was a hint of amusement in his voice.

In fact, the death cap mushroom grows in Europe and is blamed for “the majority of human deaths from mushroom poisoning, possibly including the deaths of Roman Emperor Claudius and Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI”, the website says.

It kills by shutting down the cell metabolism in the liver and kidneys. People may eat it because they mistake it for the edible straw mushroom - or perhaps because someone wants to kill them.

The website also informs that the plant’s toxins were first isolated and studied in 1937 at the University of Munich - in the heart of Europe where mushroom picking borders on obsession.

Less reassuring? There is no antidote.

Other website launch species, such as rice, tomatoes, potatoes and small micro organisms, were chosen for the sheer range of knowledge about them.

“We wanted to show the range and kinds of information that we ultimately would like to provide” for all the species, Hanken said.

The $12.5-million privately funded project involves Harvard University, the Smithsonian Institution, the MacArthur and Sloan Foundations and a number of other world institutions.

The Encyclopaedia of Life was the brainchild of EO Wilson, an emeritus Harvard professor and advocate for preserving biodiversity who believes the project will “accelerate the discovery of the vast array” of species that remain unknown.

A long-standing problem for researchers who may believe they have discovered a new species has been the challenge of tracking down known research through the world’s unwieldy library system. For far-flung scientists, the challenge is even greater.

“This information that we already know has never been in one place,” said Edwards. “If you’re in a developing country, you may not even have a library.”

“We expect that this resource will be of extreme value to scientists in describing new species,” Edwards said.

The site will also serve the needs of the general public, offering advice about when to plant crops as the Earth’s climate heats up, the sponsors said. Eventually, there could be two separate tracks on the website for entering information - one for scientists, the other for the general public.

Most of the information is in English, but the intent is to translate into the world’s major languages such as Chinese, Japanese and possibly Arabic in addition to the European Union languages.

The launch will formally take place in Monterey, California, at a gathering of the Technology, Entertainment and Design conference that bills itself as an invitation-only gathering of the world’s leading thinkers and doers.

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