Leading scientists announce creation of Encyclopedia of Life

4 min read

Realizing a dream articulated in 2003 by renowned biologist E.O. Wilson, Harvard and four partner institutions have launched an ambitious effort to create an Encyclopedia of Life (EOL), an unprecedented project to document online every one of Earth’s 1.8 million known species. For the first time in history, the EOL would grant scientists, students, and others multimedia access to all known living species, even those just discovered.

The effort, announced today (May 9), will be supported by a new $10 million grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and $2.5 million from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

With a Wikipedia-style Web page detailing each organism’s genome, geographic distribution, phylogenetic position, habitat, and ecological relationships, organizers hope the EOL will ultimately serve as a global beacon for biodiversity and conservation.

Harvard joins the Field Museum in Chicago, the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., the Smithsonian Institution, and the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) to initiate the project, bringing together species and software experts from across the world. An international advisory board of distinguished individuals will help guide the EOL.

Harvard’s EOL participation will be led by James Hanken, director of Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology and Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Harvard scientists will partner with colleagues at the Smithsonian to spearhead the education and outreach facets of the project.

“EOL is an audacious project, but one that is doable with existing technology,” Hanken says. “It has the potential to transform how people learn and communicate about biology.”

For more than 250 years, scientists have catalogued life, but traditional catalogues have long since become unwieldy, EOL organizers say. They believe technology can help science grasp the immense complexity of life on this planet while protecting Earth’s biodiversity and better conserving our natural heritage.

Over the next 10 years, the EOL will create Web pages for all 1.8 million living species known to exist on Earth. The pages, housed at, will provide written information and, when available, photographs, video, sound, location maps, and other multimedia information on each species. Built on the scientific integrity of thousands of experts around the globe, the EOL will be a moderated Wikipedia-like resource, freely available to all users everywhere.

A prolific and eloquent author and perhaps the world’s foremost champion of biodiversity, Wilson, the Pellegrino University Professor Emeritus at Harvard and now the honorary chair of the EOL, cheers the project’s advent.

“Our knowledge of biodiversity is so incomplete that we are at risk of losing a great deal of it before it is ever discovered,” he says, adding the hope “that we will work together to help create the key tool that we need to inspire preservation of Earth’s biodiversity: the Encyclopedia of Life.

“What excites me is that since I first put forward this idea, science has advanced, technology has moved forward,” Wilson says. “Today, the practicalities of making this encyclopedia real are within reach as never before.”

Scientists began creating individual Web pages for species in the 1990s. However, Internet technology needed to mature to allow efficient creation of a comprehensive encyclopedia. While specific EOL efforts, including the scanning of key research publications and data, have been under way since January 2006, work has accelerated with the support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Ultimately, the EOL will be made available in numerous languages and will connect scientific communities concerned with ants, apples, or zebras. While initial work will emphasize species of animals, plants, and fungi, the design can be extended to encompass microbial life.

To provide depth behind the portal page for each species, the Biodiversity Heritage Library, a consortium that holds most of the relevant scientific literature, will scan and digitize tens of millions of pages of the scientific literature that will offer open access to detailed knowledge. In fact, the BHL already has scanning centers operating in London, Boston, and Washington, D.C., which have scanned the first 1.25 million pages for the EOL.[JH1]

“I dream that in a few years, wherever a reference to a species occurs on the Internet, there will be a hyperlink to its page in the Encyclopedia of Life,” says James Edwards, executive secretary of the Global Biodiversity Information Facility and executive director of the EOL.