Scientists around the world are beginning work on what they hope will be a comprehensive online directory of all life on Earth, built in large part on the efforts of amateur observers.  

The directory will be a free resource that everyone — not just those working in the scientific community — can contribute to or use, say the people behind the project. The idea is to link together the efforts of thousands of observers around the world who already log their observations of flora and fauna online into one comprehensive, searchable directory.

Browsers will theoretically be able to search for information ranging from animal gene codes, to changes in global forest cover, to taxonomic data on plants and animals.

Some 400 biologists and technology experts gathered in London, England, on Monday at a three-day conference to announce the establishment of what they call a "macroscopic directory" cataloguing the efforts of "an army of citizen scientists."

Conference participants, including  London's Natural History Museum and the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, will discuss how they are sharing and aggregating research and data records.

The conference in the British capital will also discuss how to build software tools that will make the project a usable reality.

Practical applications

The Encyclopedia of Life (EOL), one of the databases chronicling life on earth, will contribute data to the new directory. Those running EOL — based out of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. —  are among the major backers of the project.

"We are creating a virtual observatory for world biodiversity, where environmental observations, specimen data, experimental results, and sophisticated modelling can be done across all levels of biodiversity — from genes to ecosystems," Dr. James Edwards, executive director of EOL, said of the proposed directory.

"Information about the biology and distribution of Earth's species is enormously important to science and our quality of life. And the impact of that information increases tremendously when it is connected and made easily accessible online to all."

The ongoing project could help track the effects of climate change on wildlife or isolate the ingress of invasive plant and animal species into sensitive environments, say its proponents.

The project could also help isolate species that have medicinal qualities, identify disease and drought-resistant crops, and cut down on incidences of birds striking aircraft by mapping their migration patterns.

Currently, basic elements of the yet-to-be-named directory are under construction.

A preliminary version of the directory should be up and running within two years, and backers hope a comprehensive database will be ready in 10 years.