Biodiversity and Bioinformatics
by Brian Pasby
these days of burgeoning human population and concomitant habitat destruction,
knowledge of centers of high biodiversity is critical if rational conservation
decisions are to be made.
problem is that this information is largely unavailable to the decision makers.
The reason for this is twofold.
although a few groups of organisms such as birds and mammals and a few
geographic areas, such as western Europe, are well studied and well
characterized most groups of organisms are only partly known and the tropical
parts of the world and the deep ocean have only just begun to be studied in
problems are compounded by the fact that there is little incentive for
biologists these days to go into the classical fields of taxonomy and
systematics. The glamour (and
money) is in molecular and cell biology.
although there is an enormous amount of biodiversity information in the worlds
museums and universities it is not readily accessible.
is ironic that most of these data are in the great museums which are located in
the cool temperate parts of the world whereas, most of the organisms are in the
warm humid parts of the world.
data that exist are paper based. Descriptions
by collectors and curators, herbarium sheets, diagrams and photographs, and of
course, pickled and preserved specimens with their labels.
a researcher wishes to consult these data he/she has to travel to the museum in
question and do the work there. For
the people who need a breadth of information to make decisions, this is
obviously not an option.
are moves afoot to remedy this situation.
are two areas in biology where enormous amounts of information are generated.
One is in molecular biology which deals with base sequences in DNA and amino
acid sequences in proteins, and the other is the biodiversity information
and computers are being used to tackle these problems with procedures which come
under the label of Bioinformatics.
are being made at places like the University of Kansas, the Natural History
Museum in London, the American Museum of Natural History in New York etc., etc.
to computerize all of their data. This
is an enormous and complex task, but this is only part of it.
To make the data efficiently available world-wide it has to be accessible
via the internet.
is being done by using a relatively new computer language called XML (Extensible
XML looks like the more familiar HTML but whereas HTML is concerned with the
appearance of a document, XML defines the internal structure, the organization
of the content of a document and when it is fully implemented will revolutionize
the speed and efficiency of access to all types of information over the
and if, we reach a point where most of the information has been accumulated and
furthermore, is readily accessible, it will be much easier for concerned
individuals and groups to make the case for the preservation of areas
that are particularly rich in diversity. They
will be able to overwhelm the politicians with actual data that hopefully even
they will be able to understand and find difficult to ignore.
‘Science’- 29 September 2000 -vol 289, contains articles discussing the application of bioinformatics to biodiversity.
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