Thursday, November 7, 2013

The cave cyber-centipede

A description of a new centipede species went through the press last week. Not so much because of the fact that it represents a very exotic find or bears a particular interesting name but rather because of the amount of additional information provided in addition to the usual data:

We demonstrate how a classical taxonomic description of a new species can be enhanced by applying new generation molecular methods, and novel computing and imaging technologies. A cave-dwelling centipede, Eupolybothrus cavernicolus Komerički & Stoev sp. n. (Chilopoda: Lithobiomorpha: Lithobiidae),  found in a remote karst region in Knin, Croatia, is the first eukaryotic species for which, in addition to the traditional morphological description, we provide a fully sequenced transcriptome, a DNA barcode, detailed anatomical X-ray microtomography (micro-CT) scans, and a movie of the living specimen to document important traits of its ex-situ behaviour....

...This pilot project illustrates a workflow of producing, storing, publishing and disseminating large data sets associated with a description of a new taxon. All data have been deposited in publicly accessible repositories, such as GigaScience GigaDB, NCBI, BOLD, Morphbank and Morphosource, and the respective open licenses used ensure their accessibility and re-usability.

Well, this is certainly not meant as a contribution to more faster descriptions (turbo-taxonomy). The international team of researchers sees it rather as a way to describe species in the future with as much information as possible. It also represents a rare type of collaboration between scientists, publishers (GigaScience, Pensoft) and genomic institutions (China National GeneBank, BGI-Shenzhen). 

Frankly, I am not sure what to make of this project. More data sounds great and more comprehensive descriptions of organisms are certainly very attractive. However, I strongly believe we do need to focus more on changing our ways to register and describe species as we seriously fall behind in our efforts to catalog biodiversity before it is wiped out by humanity. For this reason I do think the conclusion of the publication is perhaps a bit too enthusiastic although the point they make about standardization is one I do support:

Taxonomy is at a turning point in its history. New technologies allow for creation of new types of information at high speed and in gigantic volumes, but without clear rules for communication standards, we will not be able to exploit their full potential. We need to focus our efforts on linking these bits and pieces together, by documenting them, by standardising them and by making them retrievable. If such an infrastructure is in place, unforeseen analytical powers can be unleashed upon these data, creating a revolution in our abilities to understand and model the biosphere.

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