Two snapshots of life

by Paul Jay, CBCNews.ca

On Tuesday two archival projects dedicated to the preservation of life on Earth opened their doors: one real, one virtual.

In Norway, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault officially opened, taking in seeds from 250,000 distinct varieties of agricultural crops. And online, the Encyclopedia of Life website launched, although it promptly crashed after millions of curious users tried to access the site.

The vault acts as a backup to existing seed banks across the world, providing a safe and remote place to store the seeds of cultivated crops, away from the effects of climate change, earthquakes, war and other disasters.

The vault is limited to the protection of cultivated crop seeds, as opposed to their wild cousins, however.

The Encyclopedia of Life, on the other hand, is less concerned with different varieties of engineered species than the species themselves, and seeks to catalogue all 1.8 million known species on Earth.

The aim of the encyclopedia organizers - a group of universities and museums - is to help researchers to understand large-scale patterns that their specialized research might otherwise miss.

But there's an undercurrent to both projects as well: the fragile nature of life on Earth.

Axel Diederichsen, the research scientist and curator at the Canadian Seed Gene Bank, said yesterday in an interview that agricultural breeding habits in the last 150 years have robbed cultivated plants of much of their diversity, creating a homogeneity that potentially exposes wide swaths of crops to pests or diseases.

Likewise, multiple pressures such as climate change and the movement of invasive species threatens wildlife conservation efforts, and aiding those efforts is one of the stated goals of the encyclopedia.

Diederichsen sees similarities between the two projects. "It's important to get an overview," he said. "How can you save something if you don't know it's there?"