The Demise of Natural History – Or is it?

Carl Linneaus (1707 – 1778) spent his life on one magnum opus – the Systema Naturae, a classification of all living things. In the process of formulating his classification system, he attempted to enumerate and describe every characteristic of many diverse individuals so he could group like with like, and revealed astounding insights how organisms are related to each other. His efforts resulted in the establishment of the field of taxonomy, which comprises the description, identification, nomenclature, and classification of organisms.

In order to do his work, Linneaus needed access to as many specimens as he could get. These were provided by naturalists – people who traveled the world collecting and cataloging every conceivable organism – plants, animals, insects, etc. The profession of naturalist was considered refined and useful, and many well-off people took it up as a hobby. Several of Linneaus’ students acted as naturalists on subsequent voyages of exploration, including the circumnavigations by Captain Cook. Charles Darwin’s participation as a naturalist on the famous Voyage of the Beagle and his subsequent publication of Origin of Species was responsible for a paradigm shift in modern biology.

While it has been estimated that there are some 8.7 million species of plants and animals on earth, only a fraction of that number, some 1.2 million, have been identified. Today’s naturalists certainly have their work cut out for them – it’s estimated that it would require nearly 500 years to catalog all of earth’s plants and animals, if it’s even possible. While some funding is still available for such efforts, it certainly isn’t plentiful, compared to that available for other endeavors. So it looks as if natural history, as people like Darwin and John James Audubon knew it, is dead in our modern age. Or is it?

Like many other scientific endeavors, the study of natural history has changed names and methodologies. Now it’s called molecular phylogeny, or phylogenomics. It’s characterized by the determination of DNA sequences of genes, or entire genomes, from various organisms– this article about snakes in a recent issue of Science is but one example of this growing effort. The scientists doing this work are the contemporary equivalent to the 18th and 19th century naturalists who scoured the globe to provide specimens for the taxonomists.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has provided a central resource for this information called GenBank, which is now in its 25th year. However, this modern version of natural history is beset with a problem common to many areas of science these days – too much data being gathered too quickly. While GenBank is a significant and useful effort, no one data repository can serve the needs of all researchers. Multiple repositories, which store different kinds of data in different ways, are a necessity. But with multiple repositories a different challenge arises – how can the data present in the various repositories be integrated? Such an effort will require unprecedented international cooperation and sharing of both data and data processing resources.

The desired end result is a classification system like Systema Naturae, but based on molecular similarity rather than physical characteristics. Just as Linneaus’ system provided new insights into the relatedness of organisms, this system will provide novel insights into the similarities and differences of the molecular processes that constitute life itself. The potential for new discoveries arising from this is immense, running the gamut from revolutionary treatments for diseases, to targeted genetic engineering of crops and other organisms adapted to specific environments. It’s an exciting time to be involved in a very old endeavor!

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Photo credit: Foter.com / CC BY-SA

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