Public Release: 

National Science Foundation announces $14M planetary biodiversity inventory awards

National Science Foundation

Arlington, Va.-The National Science Foundation (NSF), in cooperation with the ALL Species Foundation, has announced an important new strategy to discover, describe and classify Earth's species. By some estimates as many as 90 percent of living species are unknown to science, and traditional approaches to discover them are unacceptably slow, scientists say. International teams of scientists are focusing existing expertise and collections on coordinating and prioritizing field, laboratory and museum studies to rapidly expand knowledge of species diversity in habitats all over the planet. New species will be described, phylogenetic relationships analyzed, and ALL Species classified based on fossil, morphological and molecular evidence.

These inventories are on an unprecedented scale and the first to be framed by phylogeny rather than place. "They have the potential to transform how biodiversity exploration is done and will train a new generation of experts, complement existing research programs and make thousands of species newly available for scientific study," said Quentin Wheeler, director of NSF's division of environmental biology, which funds the initiative under the name Planetary Biodiversity Inventory (PBI).

The first PBI awardees are:

Lynn Bohs at the University of Utah, is heading a team to classify plants in the genus Solanum, which includes major crops such as tomatoes, potatoes and eggplants, as well as numerous lesser-known crops of tropical and subtropical regions, sources of pharmaceutical agents, and poisonous weeds like deadly nightshade. With an estimated 1500 species worldwide, Solanum is the focus of large-scale genomics projects and the genus provides model systems to study plant breeding, pollination biology and fruit dispersal.

Larry Page of the Florida Museum of Natural History and colleagues will inventory and describe the world's catfishes. Catfishes are extremely diverse, ecologically significant and commercially important. At present, 2,734 species of catfish are recognized, or one of every four species of freshwater fish, but the actual number of catfish species is probably between 3,600 and 4,500. A group of 201 participants from 31 countries, including 57 students, will discover and describe at least 1,000 new species of catfishes, including all fossil catfishes.

Randall Schuh at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and his team will conduct a global study of plant-feeding insects in the family Miridae, a worldwide group of insects important in agriculture and as indicators of biodiversity. The scientists will study approximately 5,300 species represented by 550,000 specimens housed in the world's natural history museums, and they will collect an additional 100,000 specimens, primarily in the Southern Hemisphere. More than 1,000 species new to science will be described.

Frederick Spiegel at the University of Arkansas will lead a group working to describe and classify the estimated 1,300 species of microscopic organisms called Eumycetozoa. Also known as slime molds, eumycetozoans have two extremely different life stages: an amoeba-like stage that feeds on bacteria and fungi that decompose dead vegetation and a spore-dispersing fruiting body stage that looks like fungus. Eumycetozoans are important predators of bacteria and fungi in terrestrial ecosystems, and they provide excellent model systems for developmental biologists to study how different kinds of cells develop in closely related organisms.

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Attachment: Fact Sheet - National Science Foundation Announces $14M Planetary Biodiversity Inventory Awards

NSF Program Officer: Jim Woolley, (703) 292-8133, jwoolley@nsf.gov

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering, with an annual budget of nearly $5.3 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives about 30,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes about 10,000 new funding awards. NSF also awards over $200 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

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Fact Sheet

Planetary Biodiversity Inventories (PBI)

Mission to an (almost) unknown planet

Media Contact: Cheryl Dybas (703) 292-7734 / cdybas@nsf.gov

What kinds of living things exist? Where do they live? How are they related? These are simple questions, but have few answers. Were life to be discovered today on another planet, resources would quickly be mustered to inventory its diversity. Yet we remain ignorant about most of the diversity of life on Earth. To date, only 5 to15 percent of all life on our home base has been discovered and described.

Despite two-and-a-half centuries of attempts to inventory life Earth's inhabitants, no model exists for how to complete a global inventory of all the species of any major group. The ambitious, multi-investigator, multi-institutional and multi-national PBI projects will demonstrate the feasibility of accomplishing global surveys within reasonable time frames. They will provide the first rigorous models to address global-scale questions in a comprehensive framework for understanding the biotic history and current ecosystems.

Why are large-scale projects needed? Our generation is the first to be aware of mass extinctions now occurring and the last to have the opportunity to inventory much of our planet's biodiversity before it disappears. If successful, these studies will provide models for workers on other groups to accomplish similar inventories in years instead of centuries.

Why are such studies crucial? They can answer the most basic questions of biodiversity for a major group, relatively completely and for the first time. By encompassing everything known about both fossil and living organisms, such studies can create a globally applicable system in which to chart the distribution of species and their characteristics, across ecological space and through geological time.

They can produce maximally efficient means of predicting the distribution of as yet unknown attributes among organisms, thereby providing a conceptual framework for all of comparative biology. They can generate rigorously tested knowledge accessible to everyone, everywhere, for research, education and application. They can produce interactive keys, or other automated identification tools, that will enable non-specialists to identify accurately all the species of these groups. They can provide a robust data set for conducting phylogenetic analyses, constructing predictive classifications and establishing the most precise, informative language possible for biological communication.

Each PBI team will:

  • conduct the fieldwork necessary to fill gaps in existing collections,
  • produce descriptions, revisions, web pages, and interactive keys (or other automated identification tools) for all new and known species in the targeted group,
  • analyze their phylogenetic relationships and to establish predictive classifications for them,
  • build a database for all new and retrospective locality information using GPS technology,
  • provide field, laboratory and museum experience for trainees, with special attention to international training for U.S. students as well as cooperation with foreign participants in training their students,
  • disseminate results and best practices to other scientific communities (workshops and other activities that share new software and other products resulting from project), and
  • disseminate results to the public

The Planetary Biodiversity Inventory is a joint initiative of the ALL Species Foundation and the National Science Foundation.

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