How Close Are We to Discovering All Life on Earth?


FISH THAT WALK, MUSHROOMS THAT “BLEED,” PRIMATES THAT FIND THEIR FOOD
JUST WITH THEIR MIDDLE FINGER… THESE ARE REAL THINGS, PEOPLE. WE SHARE OUR PLANET WITH MILLIONS
OF INCREDIBLE LIFE FORMS. AND DISCOVERING WHO THEY ARE, WHERE THEY ARE,
AND WHAT MAKES THEM TICK IS KEY IF WE WANT TO UNLOCK THE SECRETS OF MEDICINE, ENGINEERING, DESIGN, ECONOMICS, SUSTAINABILITY AND STEWARDSHIP THAT WILL DEFINE THE FUTURE OF OUR SPECIES; REVEAL CLUES ABOUT OUR EVOLUTIONARY PAST; AND JUST CULTIVATE OUR SENSE OF WONDER AT
LIFE’S SHEER POTENTIAL. BUT WE NEED TO ACT FAST. – Today we are living in a biodiversity crisis, in which species are going extinct before
we even realize their existence, or their potential value. SO, HOW CLOSE ARE WE TO
DISCOVERING ALL LIFE ON EARTH? IN THIS EPISODE, WE’LL MEET SOME AMAZING BIODIVERSITY RESEARCHERS WORKING INTERNATIONALLY TO ACCELERATE SPECIES DISCOVERY, DEVELOP DIGITAL CONSERVATION TOOLS, AND MAINTAIN ONE OF THE
WORLD’S LARGEST BIOLOGICAL COLLECTIONS THROUGH A PROCESS CALLED “CRYOPRESERVATION” THAT IS, LITERALLY, ULTRA-COOL. BUT THIS NETWORK OF RESEARCHERS HAS A HERCULEAN EFFORT IN FRONT OF THEM. – Strangely enough, we know only maybe 10%
of the biodiversity that we have on our planet. THAT MEANS THERE’S SOMETHING LIKE 90% OF
LIFE ON EARTH LEFT TO DISCOVER. SO LET’S START AT THE BEGINNING. DESCRIBING A NEW SPECIES TYPICALLY REQUIRES
COLLECTING A PHYSICAL SPECIMEN OF SOME KIND, WHICH CAN OFTEN MEAN TRAVELING
TO HARD-TO-REACH LOCATIONS. – They call them these ”rapid inventories.”
Sometimes they don’t have road access so they’ll fly in by plane and just parachute in with
a team of ecologists that identify the plants, the birds, the amphibians and the butterflies. – If a species is bigger, it’s easier to find than a small specimen. If the species has a really colorful pattern,
it’s easier to see than a species that has a kind of camouflage. ONCE IT’S RETRIEVED, THE SAMPLE WILL BE
SENT TO A SCIENTIFIC COLLECTION, WHERE IT MAY HAVE TO WAIT TO BE 
DISCOVERED ALL OVER AGAIN. After you collect this specimen in nature, it might take, like, 21 years for that specimen to
be discovered in a scientific collection, and have someone process it
and describe it as a formal new species. THIS IS BECAUSE THE EXPERTISE REQUIRED TO
DO THIS IS PRETTY RARE. A TAXONOMIC EXPERT NEEDS TO STUDY THE SPECIES’
SHAPE, STRUCTURE, AND GENETIC MAKEUP, AND COMPARE IT WITH ANY CLOSE KNOWN RELATIVES
BEFORE GIVING IT A NAME. We don’t have enough taxonomists. We need to have an army of taxonomists to
describe all the species that exist in the world. BUT DUBBING A SPECIES OFFICIAL
IS JUST THE BEGINNING. TO CREATE A RECORD OF IT THAT OTHER SCIENTISTS
CAN STUDY, LET ALONE USE FOR ANY CONSERVATION WORK, WE NEED TO CAPTURE AND PRESERVE ALL
THE INFORMATION WE CAN ABOUT AN ORGANISM. THAT’S WHERE COLLECTIONS LIKE THE SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION’S BIOREPOSITORIES COME IN. SO WE WENT TO VISIT THE NATIONAL ZOO IN DOWNTOWN WASHINGTON, D.C. TO SEE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT. – A biorepository is a specialized facility that really contains a lot of biological materials, that really need to be preserved in a stable state. It’s like in a museum when you have paintings
that are very sensitive to variation of humidity or temperature. Every day, we have tens to hundreds of incoming samples that are processed and stored for the long term. I would say that we are probably among the
largest collections in the world. THAT COLLECTION REPRESENTS
AROUND 18,000 SPECIES AND INCLUDES OVER 1 MILLION DNA SAMPLES, SKIN BIOPSIES, BLOOD SAMPLES,
SPERM, EGGS, EMBRYOS… YOU NAME IT. CRYOPRESERVATION INVOLVES A SERIES OF METICULOUS STEPS, WHICH I GOT TO EXPERIENCE FIRSTHAND. THE WATER IN A SKIN SAMPLE FROM A NEWLY DISCOVERED RODENT, FOR EXAMPLE, NEEDS TO BE REPLACED WITH A FLUID CALLED CRYOPROTECTANT THAT ACTS
AS ANTIFREEZE, EFFECTIVELY PUTTING THE CELLS ON PAUSE WHEN THE SAMPLE IS
STORED IN LIQUID NITROGEN. So basically you suspend life entirely and this life suspension can travel through time
– for a long, long period of time. – Do you mind if I try? Is that okay? – Sure, go for it. – You have to show me how to do it, though,
because I have a feeling this is harder than it looks. – A little. – Okay. So, we’ve got the… things… and the
goal is to put it in the tube, right? Okay. – Mm-hmm, and while keeping everything underneath
the liquid nitrogen, as much as possible. – Haha, I don’t know if I’m going to be able
to do that, okay. Let’s try. Ah! Okay, okay. Like this… it’s not submerged, it’s not submerged… oh no. Ha! It’s good, right? – Nice! Yaaaaaaas. High five. We preserve also, all the packaging of the DNA but we also preserve the cells that are containing
the DNA and beyond the cells, the whole tissue. We want to make sure that everything is still
viable when we are thawing the samples. Viable means that the tissue has to be able
to recover and to resume normal activities, biochemical, biophysical activities and when
we are talking about gonadal tissues like ovaries or testes, we need to make sure that
they are still producing germinal cells. YOU HEARD THAT RIGHT –
THESE SAMPLES CAN BE USED NOT ONLY FOR FUTURE SCIENTIFIC STUDY, BUT EVEN ARTIFICIAL INSEMINATION TO HELP RECOVER AN ENDANGERED POPULATION. AND WHILE THE ZOO ITSELF SPECIALIZES IN VERTEBRATES AND CARNIVORES, THROUGH SOMETHING CALLED
THE “PAN-SMITHSONIAN CRYOINITIATIVE,” PIERRE AND HIS TEAM WORK WITH SCIENTISTS AT OTHER ZOOS, MUSEUMS, AND RESEARCH CENTERS
TO PRESERVE INVERTEBRATES, PLANTS, AND SOIL SAMPLES, ADDING MICROBES AND FUNGI TO A MORE AND MORE COMPLETE ‘LIBRARY OF LIFE.’ – So, there are specific parts of the planet that we’ve barely explored, and there are specific
parts of the tree of life, like specific animal groups, that we haven’t scientifically
explored in the same way. SO HOW DO WE KNOW WHERE TO LOOK NEXT? WHERE MIGHT BE MOST AT RISK,
OR MOST RIPE FOR DISCOVERIES? TO CREATE A ROADMAP THAT POINTS US TO WHERE
NEW SPECIES MIGHT BE HIDING, WE’LL NEED TO COMPILE EVERYTHING WE KNOW SO FAR ABOUT
WHERE SPECIES OCCUR, FROM CONSERVATION DATASETS, TO VINTAGE FIELD GUIDES, TO INFORMATION COLLECTED BY CITIZEN SCIENTISTS ON THEIR MOBILE PHONES. ENTER THE “MAP OF LIFE,” A FLAGSHIP PROJECT AT YALE’S CENTER FOR BIODIVERSITY AND GLOBAL
CHANGE THAT’S DOING JUST THAT. What we do is compile all types of spatial and
non-spatial information about species, to get the best
idea of where species occur in the world. Our data teams can standardize millions
of records so that we can really easily and quickly get an idea of, ‘this is what information
we have for this specific region.’ AS THE NAME SUGGESTS,
THIS DATA, TAKEN TOGETHER, CREATES A VIRTUAL MAP OF LIFE
THAT CAN BE USED BY ANYONE , WHETHER YOU’RE DISCOVERING SPECIES
IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD OR PLANNING A FIELD EXPEDITION. We also inform UN-level decision makers,
and conservation managers that are working on the ground. It gives an answer to people that are curious
to say like, “how can I get involved? How can I help?” And this is showing like, “This is what you’re
stewarding in your area that you live.” Anywhere on the planet. BUT WHETHER RACING TO FREEZE TISSUE SAMPLES
THAT IMMORTALIZE A SPECIES OR DRAWING DIGITAL MAPS
THAT POINT US TO NEW DISCOVERIES, RESEARCHERS AGREE THAT OUR BEST BET
TO PRESERVE AND DOCUMENT LIFE AS QUICKLY AS WE CAN, IS TO ACT LOCALLY
AND THINK GLOBALLY. We built a dashboard for Peru, Ecuador, and Columbia for park managers there to figure
out what species are in their park, what do we expect to be there, and also what has been
actually recorded there. In some cases, a species only occurs in
one smaller reserve, and nowhere else on the planet. And many times the park manager
doesn’t know that. So it’s making these really important linkages
for them to be able to make decisions at a really small scale. – We’ve been working extensively with Thailand, with Vietnam. We’ve been working with countries like Kuwait
in the Middle East. To build capacity and to help countries to
build their own national gene bank to make sure that they preserve their own biodiversity. – The regions with the most rewarding potential
to have new discoveries are the tropical forests. They harbor most of the undescribed species
on Earth, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. SO, IF ALL WE NEED TO DO IS PRESERVE  OUR TROPICAL FORESTS, RECRUIT AN ARMY OF TAXONOMISTS TO EXPLORE THEIR LIVING TREASURES, CLEAN OUT THE SHELVES OF OUR SCIENTIFIC COLLECTIONS TO SEE WHAT MIGHT BE HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT, AND POUR MORE RESOURCES INTO PRESERVING AND PROCESSING MILLIONS OF SAMPLES AND DIGITAL
RECORDS TO BUILD A LIBRARY OF LIFE AND A ROAD MAP THAT POINTS US TO NEW DISCOVERIES, HOW CLOSE ARE WE TO DISCOVERING ALL LIFE ON EARTH? –  In birds, in mammals, we have a better knowledge. In amphibians and reptiles, that knowledge is
not that good, but it’s something at least. But for invertebrates and marine organisms,
that knowledge is really sparse. At the current rate of discoveries it might well take 50 years to describe all vertebrates. So the other groups, like invertebrates or marine organisms – I would say that it will take perhaps another 100 years. Or more. – When you think that there are millions
of species on the planet and when I tell you that we only have
18,000 in the biorepositories at the Smithsonian, you can see that it’s
a very small proportion. But when you think about it, I mean,
everything grows exponentially. Because 100 years ago, we had no idea
what cryobiology was. Ten years ago, we knew that we could sequence
DNA but it was a very, very long process and now it can be done in
an hour for a single genome. It’s a transgenerational, multigenerational
effort  and I think it’s pretty encouraging to know that there are good chances for those
efforts to be carried on, and probably improve, and go way faster than
what we can do right now. – When you’re working in biodiversity conservation, it’s easy to lose hope because you’re just
seeing we’re in a mass extinction crisis. But we’re in this age where technology can
really change the landscape of how we operate, in positive ways. So I have a lot of hope that it’s not too
late, and now is as good a time as any
to do something about it. For a complete guide to all things
science, subscribe to Seeker. And let us know in the comments below
what we should investigate next. This was actually a really special episode
for me, because it was my first time getting to travel with Seeker,
go in a lab, and investigate what the scientists were doing
in real-time, so if you liked that please leave it in the comments below,
thumbs up and share this video. Thanks so much for watching.
Bye!

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