E.O. Wilson: My wish: Build the Encyclopedia of Life-2

In the last 30 years, thanks to explorations in remote parts of the world and advances in technology, biologists have, for example, added a full one-third of the known frog and other amphibian species, to bring the current total to 5,400, and more continue to pour in. Two new kinds of whales have been discovered, along with two new antelopes, dozens of monkey species and a new kind of elephant — and even a distinct kind of gorilla. At the extreme opposite end of the size scale, the class of marine bacteria, the Prochlorococci — that will be on the final exam — although discovered only in 1988, are now recognized as likely the most abundant organisms on Earth, and moreover, responsible for a large part of the photosynthesis that occurs in the ocean. These bacteria were not uncovered sooner because they are also among the smallest of all Earth’s organisms — so minute that they cannot be seen with conventional optical microscopy. Yet life in the sea may depend on these tiny creatures.

These examples are just the first glimpse of our ignorance of life on this planet. Consider the fungi — including mushrooms, rusts, molds and many disease-causing organisms. 60,000 species are known to science, but more than 1.5 million have been estimated to exist. Consider the nematode roundworm, the most abundant of all animals. Four out of five animals on Earth are nematode worms — if all solid materials except nematode worms were to be eliminated, you could still see the ghostly outline of most of it in nematode worms. About 16,000 species of nematode worms have been discovered and diagnosed by scientists; there could be hundreds of thousands of them, even millions, still unknown. This vast domain of hidden biodiversity is increased still further by the dark matter of the biological world of bacteria, which within just the last several years still were known from only about 6,000 species of bacteria worldwide. But that number of bacteria species can be found in one gram of soil, just a little handful of soil, in the 10 billion bacteria that would be there. It’s been estimated that a single ton of soil — fertile soil — contains approximately four million species of bacteria, all unknown.

Om Namah Shivay

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