Scientists race to save ‘books’ in the burning ‘library of life’

As species blink into extinction all around the world, environmental scientists in Australia have come up with a way to decide ‘which of the books we rescue from the blazing library of life’. Researchers have developed a cost-effective way to save a wide range of threatened species, including rare old ones that may be costly to protect.
Their new technique to help maximise both the species and genetic diversity we save helps resolve the dilemma facing conservation managers worldwide: whether to rescue a larger number of recent and more common species or fewer, unique and older species that may be more costly to preserve.
The technology will help nations such as Australia and New Zealand to protect as much diversity of both species and their genes as possible, says lead researcher Dr Joseph Bennett of CEED and The University of Queensland (UQ). "The global extinction crisis is getting worse, and conservation funds are seldom enough to stop biodiversity from declining," says Dr Bennett. "This is like a library on fire, and we have to save as much of the precious information as we can.
"If we have to choose, do we carry out a few rare, old tomes, or do we carry a larger number of smaller books that may contain less information than the ancient tomes?" Dr Bennett explains that highly distinct species have few close relatives, and their lineage has been isolated on the tree of life for many millions of years. The platypus is one example of Australia’s ‘rare old tomes’ , its ancestors diverged from other mammals somewhere between 160 and 200 million years ago.
As the distinct species are isolated from others, they also contain unique genes, which may in the future prove very important to the health of ecosystems, or even the development of medicine. For example, Ginkgo biloba is an old and genetically distinct species that was once close to extinction, but is now used traditional medicine, he says.
"So losing the more distinct species, akin to losing the rare old tome, could mean the loss of this genetic information, along with millions of years of evolution," he says. "But when these species are expensive to protect, it may mean spending money to save one or two species instead of five or ten other species."