We're facing a tide of extinctions. As wave after wave of species is hurled against the rocks of habitat loss, pollution and climate change, biological science is moving from intellectually valuable pursuit to survival tool: we need to know all we can about the natural world to better save it from our stupidities (and save ourselves from its loss).
Luckily, the tools at biologists' fingertips are growing incredibly powerful. In a sharp recent post, Andrew Zolli lays out what new tools mean to our understandings of taxonomy:
"Thanks to advances in genomics and taxonomy, the system of identifying and classifying species of living things is about to undergo a fundamental transformation that may remake the way we perceive and organize the living world around us.
"For more than 250 years, biologists have been using variations of the system invented by the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus to classify living organisms. In the first few centuries of this grand taxonomic endeavor, individual species were identified largely by their morphology and geography - i.e. what shape they were, and where they were. By the 1940s and 50s, as people began to better understand genetics and breeding, a species was redefined as a group of organisms that could successfully breed with each other. Today, a "species" of plant, animal or other living thing today is defined as a distinct population of living things capable of reproducing and/or exchanging genes. (This definition unites single species like dogs, who can be as morphologically different as a poodle and a rotweiler, yet have the ability to interbreed, while it separates geographically distinct variants of east and west African monkeys, which, while capable of exchanging genes in theory, can't do so in practice.)...
"Now, major work is underway in two very different areas to address these (perceived) taxonomic deficiencies.
"First is the development of PhyloCode, a new formal set of rules governing phylogenetic nomenclature for botany and zoology. PhyloCode claims to apply the idea of common ancestry to biological nomenclature, so as to complete the Darwinian Revolution. It exists as a draft document on the Internet, (a little like an RFC) and is already spurring fascinating and intense debate. (Contemporary Linneans counter that there are too many holes in our understanding to build a phlyogenetic view of all living things, that it doesn't add and may in fact diminish the informational content of the overall taxonomic scheme, that the Linnean system either works already or can be made to work.) The first international meeting on phylogenetic nomenclature is scheduled for July 6-9, 2004 in Paris.
"Second is the development of so-called Barcodes of Life. Championed by Professor Paul Hebert at the University of Guelph in Canada, Mark Stoeckle at Rockefeller University, and others, this approach would identify short strands of DNA which uniquely identify a specific species, much like UPC codes on consumer products. Importantly, it would take human judgement completely out of the picture - these researchers envision a system where a field biologist could pick a leaf, clip a tuft of fur, or otherwise collect a small DNA sample from a single organism, put it into an Internet-enabled gene sequencer wirelessly connected to a "Google for Lifeforms", and identify the organism instantaneously."
Wow... This is excellent stuff, will have to follow up. I'm interested in them doing it in levels, with chemical interactions surrounding the genes as they develop and after they mature as one level. This could be an excellent data mining opportunity.