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Towards a catalogue of life

Sara Oldfield

Life is seemingly infinite in its genetic variability but for convenience we group and label plants, animals, fungi and microbes under different names. The most commonly used, the species name, allows us to name all the organisms on Earth.

Scientists cannot yet say how many different species exist: some habitats—such as the deep oceans or remote areas of rainforest—and the realm of micro-sized organisms remain almost unexplored. Even the concept of what constitutes life is changing: genome barcoding and chemical analyses challenge the understanding of species relationships, help to clarify the delimitation of species and reveal previously unrecognisable organisms. Since Linnaeus set about describing and naming species to create order out of chaos in the 1730s, there has been a complex process of sorting and revising names to match the collected specimens of living organisms.

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