LIFE SCIENCE
10:00 pm
Mon December 10, 2012

Empowering Everyone to Explore Life's Diversity

An unnamed mushroom found in South Carolina and posted on mushroomobserver.org.
An unnamed mushroom found in South Carolina and posted on mushroomobserver.org.
Credit Patrick R. Smith / mushroomobserver.org

I feel like I'm becoming a broken record. Each week, my guests wow me with just how little we know about their chosen field. Today, it was the diversity of life on Earth. Earlier this year, Encyclopedia of Life (EOL.org) passed the one million page mark. While that's impressive, it's nowhere close to the project's goal of one page for every species on Earth. In fact, Nathan Wilson, technical director for EOL.org and a curator on the site, says we don't even have a good handle on how many species there are on Earth.

Wilson is passionate about biodiversity research. His mother introduced him to the world of mushroom collecting when he was a kid, and he's been hooked ever since. That, in turn, provided an entrez into the wider world of biodiversity.

When Wilson hit college, though, his childhood dream of becoming a biologist hit a reality wall. A lot of biology is inextricable from chemistry, and he didn't hit it off with chemistry. So he turned to animal behavior and experimental psychology instead. That got him writing computer programs, which turned into another passion — one that led to a stint at Dreamworks, of all places. But he never gave up on mushrooms.

Even in Hollywood, Wilson's programming focused on creating environments that foster collaboration around large datasets. In his spare time he created MushroomObserver.org, a virtual, collective field notebook where anyone — professional scientists or kids in their backyards — can share photos and descriptions of mushrooms they encounter. Wilson says he had two goals for the site: to help people learn about the fungi they find, and to help scientists discover new mushrooms. It's doing both. The site has thousands of users who have logged over 250,000 photos, and Wilson says he's always amazed and gratified by how frequently the site is mentioned at scientific conferences.

One benefit Wilson couldn't have foreseen, though, was that Mushroom Observer would land him his dream job. When Encyclopedia of Life was looking for someone to head up their informatics efforts, Wilson's experience with both biodiversity research and internet-based collaboration made him a perfect fit.

Encyclopedia of Life is primarily geared toward sharing existing knowledge, not expanding it. Visitors can view photos, watch videos, or read articles. But they can't log their own observations or post a photo and ask "what is this?" That's something Wilson would like to see change, eventually. He's adamant that biodiversity research needs volunteers, hobbyists, and even chance observers, because understanding the diversity of life on Earth is too important to leave anyone out.

Have you ever helped discover a new species? Or even just wondered if that odd thing in your back yard might be one? Tell us about it in the comments.

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