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Foreword by Walter Cronkite  
Introduction - The National Science Foundation at 50: Where Discoveries Begin, by Rita Colwell  
Internet: Changing the Way we Communicate  
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Environment: Taking the Long View

Wanted: A Complete Catalog of
Creatures and Plants

Close-up of a chytrid - click for more details Chytrids are not something people generally worry about. Yet this little-known group of fungi made news in 1998 when it was linked with a rash of frog deaths in Australia and Panama.

It had taken frog researchers several years to locate a chytrid specialist capable of identifying the deadly fungus, and even then the experts were surprised. "We didn't know that any [chytrids] were parasites of vertebrates," says Martha Powell, a chytrid specialist at the University of Alabama.

Chytrids aren't alone in being poorly classified. Only about 1.5 million species have been identified so far out of the thirteen million or so thought currently to exist (some estimates of the overall number are closer to 30 million). The gargantuan challenge of collecting and describing examples of all these unknown species falls to a steadily shrinking pool of scientists known as systematic biologists. With the advent of high-tech molecular techniques for studying evolutionary relationships, taxonomy—the science of species classification—has come to seem faintly antiquated, even though biological research collections "remain the ultimate source of knowledge about the identity, relationships, and properties of the species with which we share the Earth," according to Stephen Blackmore, chair of the Systematics Forum in the United Kingdom, who wrote about the problem in 1997 for the journal Science.

But even as "the inescapable need to know more about the diversity of life on Earth remains largely unmet," wrote Blackmore, "declining funds are limiting the ability of institutes around the world to respond…." As of 1996, there were only about 7,000 systematists in the world, a workforce that Blackmore and others deem "clearly inadequate."

Says James Rodman, NSF program director for systematics, "There are very few people studying the obscure groups" of species and many of those experts are beginning to retire.

One way the National Science Foundation is trying to address the problem is through its Partnerships for Enhancing Expertise in Taxonomy (PEET) program. PEET funds systematic biologists working to identify understudied groups like the chytrids. In fact, Powell and her colleagues are now working under a PEET grant to train at least three new Ph.D.s in the systematic biology of chytrids. Besides training the next generation of systematists, PEET projects are also making what is known about these species more widely available through the development of Web-accessible databases that contain information such as identification keys, photographs, distribution maps, and DNA sequences.

"Systematists," wrote Blackmore, "hold the key to providing knowledge about biodiversity." Knowing more about how the world functions requires learning more about each of the world's parts, however small.

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The Big Picture
An Ecological Solution to a Medical Mystery
Contributing to a Cleaner World
Counting the Blessings of Biodiversity
Keeping Up with Global Change
Cityscapes Are Landscapes, Too
Long Term Research: A Model for NSF's Future
The Birth of Long Term Ecological Research
Solving the Biocomplexity Puzzle
Wanted: A Complete Catalog of Creatures and Plants
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