Needed: A Global Bioinformatics System

By La Monica Everett-Haynes,      University Communications |             August 6, 2012

P. Bryan Heidorn, who directs the UA School of Information Resources and Library Science, is part of a global team that is working to develop standards for gathering, storing and disseminating important information about plants, animals and the environment.

P. Bryan Heidorn is director of the UA's School of Information Resources and Library Science. In addition to his UA post, Heidorn is on the board of the JRS Biodiversity Foundation and also has been involved in the Taxonomic Database Working Group for more than a decade.A global information infrastructure is critical to making intelligent decisions about the grand challenge of rapid shifts occurring in the environment and life on Earth.

At the University of Arizona, P. Bryan Heidorn is working with a team of researchers around the world to help plan and develop this information system and, this fall, will be disseminating ideas to United Nations organizations.

The right information can lead urban planners to work to preserve rivers, lakes and streams to maintain a clean water supply because “economically, it’s a lot cheaper to keep a forest than it is to build another water-treatment facility,” said Heidorn, who directs the UA’s School of Information Resources and Library Science, or SIRLS.

Information also can help African subsistence farmers who are directly affected by the persistent changes in rainfall and temperature that then contribute to shifts in success of crops and farm animals, wild prey animal availability and subsequent human migration.

“Subsistence farmers and hunter-gatherers are more directly dependent on the environment. They do not have synthetic agriculture systems to buffer them,” Heidorn said.

What connects those examples and others around the world is the present challenge in improving biodiversity informatics, a field that employs current and developing technologies for gaining and sharing information about humans, animal and plant life as well as environmental factors.

“The issues related to biodiversity are worldwide. Some of that is attributed to land-use changes, or invasive species and environmental changes. Those are the main factors contributing to biodiversity decline,” said Heidorn, who served as the program officer for the National Science Foundation’s Division of Biological Infrastructure before his UA appointment.

“Unfortunately, there is a great information gap currently. We have to know what is in peril before we know where to focus our efforts,” Heidorn said. “We need globally accessible databases and information standards so that when the U.S. creates this information, it can be combined with information from countries in Europe, Africa, Asia or anywhere. We need to build a global model.”

Heidorn is part of a 12-member team working to do just that.

Initiatives exist, namely the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 and the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, which offer guidelines around the preservation of species and protected lands, for example.

But as of yet, no coordinated set of global initiatives exists to inform countries on how to organize and disseminate information around biological life.

The team is developing a Global Biodiversity Informatics Outlook document, or GBIO, which will be delivered to diplomats who convene in October for the Conference of the Parties during the Convention on Biological Diversity in India. The document also will be provided to other United Nations organizations and branches, along with other intergovernmental and governmental organizations.

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Posted in AZBio News, Environment.