Taxonomists to reclassify image: Biologists' 2.5m pounds to attract the young

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The Independent Online
(First Edition)

IT MAY not seem the obvious candidate for a life in the fast lane, but the classification of species, or taxonomy, is sharpening up its image to attract young recruits.

Taxonomy usually conjures up Victorian museums full of dead insects, pinned in rows under glass covers. Today's taxonomists still rely heavily on such collections, but want to project a more vibrant image for their re-emerging science.

'Taxonomy has suffered from a presentation problem, but it is a lively field that lies at the heart of some of today's most pressing scientific questions,' Charles Godfray, an evolutionary biologist at Imperial College, London, said.

Those who hold the nation's research purse strings seem to agree. The Natural Environment Research Council has put aside 2.5m 'to revitalise' British taxonomy over the next five years. Three groups of researchers at Imperial College, London, and Glasgow and Reading universities, will share the money.

Taxonomy is vital, the council believes, for success in newer disciplines. The prime example is biodiversity, the mix of species that taxonomists help to identify and place. The word entered common usage after last year's Earth Summit in Rio.

The Government backed an agreement at Rio to maintain biodiversity. 'To do this, we need to know how many species live in different habitats, and what they do,' Dr Godfray said. 'Ecologists and taxonomists need to work closely together to answer these questions.'

The three groups will use their extra cash to cover botany, palaeontology and zoology. Each has teamed up with a museum to draw on the applied skills of staff working in the field. Imperial College won the bid for the zoology work hand-in-hand with its neighbour, the Natural History Museum, in South Kensington.

The museum has more than 60 million specimens and an international reputation for the quality of its research. Biologists at Imperial and the Natural History museum are looking at the interaction between insects in tropical rain forests and their natural enemies, such as parasitic wasps. This interplay may help to explain the huge number of insect species living in such habitats.

The research could have financial benefits. The wasps are useful since they will attack the pests of economically important crops. But scientists must find the right wasp for each pest. Research on worms - which can play a key role in the cycle of carbon and therefore global warming - brings together old- and new-style taxonomy. It is hard to tell worms apart, so the scientists cannot rely on morphology, or shape, as they would when classifying other species.

Instead they turn increasingly to molecular biology to identify genetic differences and similarities. 'It is easy to link a cat and a tiger from their morphology. But it's hard to tell, just by looking, if a panda is related more closely to a raccoon or to a bear,' Dr Godfray said.