Life on Earth critically depends on plant life, which forms the base of all terrestrial food webs. Humanity itself is also critically dependent on plant life for food, fuel, medicine, shelter and numerous other uses. However, despite the critical importance of plants, we know remarkably little about them.
Surprisingly, the basic properties of most plant species are still unknown. Even the most rudimentary information like where a given species can be found, what characterizes each species (in terms of flower color, how big it is, or whether it is a tree, shrub or a small herbaceous plant) remain difficult to find and access. This lack of basic information about the Earth’s biosphere has critically restricted not only scientific progress, but also our efforts to utilize plants for human needs.
Life on Earth is currently coping with rapid environmental and biological changes globally, and these changes pose numerous threats to plants and animals globally. However, due to our fundamental lack of knowledge, we don’t have a good handle on which plants are endangered, what benefits we risk losing, or even what we may have already lost. This lack of knowledge is due to the fact that the plant scientists of the world have numerous computational and data barriers that limit access and integration of the 200+ years of information that has been and is currently being collected on plants across the world. Until now, these barriers have limited our insight into the plant biodiversity of the planet. This upcoming month the University of Arizona will announce a new computational set of tools and infrastructure that will break down many of these barriers and make the worlds botanical information free and open to researchers and the general public.
The Botanical Information and Ecology Network (BIEN for short), is a group of more than 50 concerned (and ambitious) scientists from around the world, who have made it their goal to address these critical gaps in botanical knowledge. The BIEN group, has been a project that we started here at the University of Arizona, and has spread globally to include a network of 50+ collaborators. Our working group has built a database and computational infrastructure for accessing and curating the largest collection of plant information ever assembled.
This massive informatics effort is enabling scientists from across the world for the first time to access and discover plant diversity and distribution. The BIEN database contains information on the traits of plant species, where they can be found, and even information on how species are related, and is freely available on the internet
cutting-edge scientific analyses and conservation efforts around the globe, ranging from understanding the evolution of plant form and function in the distant past to identifying areas that need to be protected in order to conserve plant species in the not-too-distant future.
I am excited to announce that the BIEN group has just released a new tool to access the BIEN database. You can read about the paper here. The effort was spearheaded and organized by Brian Maitner, a PhD student in the lab. Brian has spent much time and effort thinking on how to make accessing a database with over 81Million observations easily accessible. I think you will appreciate his efforts!
Ultimately, the worlds botanical data are a resource to all. We should make sure to give thanks to all the funding agencies, institutions, ecologists, and botanical experts who supported funded & collected these data. Much of the funding for these data stem from public funding sources – so in many ways these are the people’s data.