Taxonomic index, anyone?

Sun Feb 23 13:05:36 CST 1997

At 03:37 PM 2/22/97 EST, Una Smith wrote:
>Compared to the molecular biology community databases available on the
>Internet now, a complete taxonomic index would be inconsequential in
>terms of either size or complexity.  If we could agree on a format for
>submission of data, and someone would provide surplus disk space on an
>Internet host, we'd be in business.

The following "assessment of the taxonomy problem" was written more than SIX
years ago, but it is still so true, not to mention entertaining, that I
think it deserves (re-)reading today.  I am posting it without permission of
the author, so I beg his forgiveness, and would ask that you not be overly
critical if some of it strikes you as dated.


Stan Blum

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By way of introduction, my name is Robert Robbins and I am with
the National Science Foundation in the capacity of Staff
Associate for Biotic Information Resources Development.  My
assignment is to "worry" about the development of computer
applications in biology and to do what I can to facilitate those
efforts.  In the past year, I have had the opportunity to meet
with many biologists involved in establishing biological
databases.  From all of those meetings, one generalization stands

The difficulty of building biological databases is always grossly

For example, a recent posting on the MATRIX bulletin board
included the observation that establishing a complete biological
taxonomic database might just be a "nice medium-sized project"
with which to get the Matrix started.  I have spent some time in
the last few months contemplating the scope of just such a
project and I have consulted with several experts in systematics
to get some notion of the number of elements involved.  The
following is a description that I just drew up that attempts to
quantify the taxonomy database problem.

According to my estimates (presented below), this is not a
"medium-sized project."


One example of a biological data problem that is challenging (at
least on a performance level), but which tends to be ignored, is
simply representing the taxonomic classification of all living
and fossil species.  This is highly structured data, well tended
and standardized by fairly fussy people.  It would certainly seem
like a good place to start with the computerization (i.e.,
MATRIXIFICATION) of biological knowledge.  Doing so is not
entirely trivial.  The taxonomy can be structured as a simple,
singly rooted tree with branches of unbalanced length (ranging
from seven to perhaps as many as 25 nodes between root and leaf).
Each node has associated with it a level name (i.e., taxonomic
level such as PHYLUM or CLASS or ORDER) and an actual node name
(i.e., the specific phylum or class or order, such as CHORDATA,
MAMMALIA, CARNIVORA).  Certain taxonomic levels will exist on all
others will exist only on some branches (TRIBE, SUBORDER, etc).
A minor complication is that the same level goes by different
level names on different branches (zoologists call the topmost
level PHYLUM whereas botanists use DIVISION).  A larger
complication is that in the real world some of the branches are
usually in dispute -- that is, there may be different versions of
the branches below, say, PHYLUM mollusca with two or more
different experts offering their own revisions (i.e.,
classifications) of all subgroups on that branch.  Thus, to be
really useful, such a database would have to be capable of
holding different versions for any or all branches.

If the database were fully populated with all established
biological species (living and extinct) the tree would have on
the order of 20,000,000 leaves (not to mention lots of higher
nodes).  To complicate things, probably every other node would
have anywhere from one to several synonyms.

Such a database might be implemented in a relational database as
(essentially) a binary relation, with each tuple representing one
arc of the tree (graph).  Navigating the table would then be a
matter of developing code to do transitive closure operations on
a multi-million leafed tree with version control (and the
authority representations that come with version control). Since
relational database products do not support transitive closure
operations, this will have to be developed locally.  As the texts
(e.g., Ullman's latest) point out, doing transitive closure
operations using recursive rules in logic programming is a piece
of cake.  However, using logic programming on a 20-million leaf
tree structure is not likely, to my understanding, to produce
anything vaguely resembling acceptable performance.

So, as I see it, developing an adequate computer-based approach
for handling the taxonomy of living things is a real challenge.
How does the typical biologist comment on this?  Answer, "Of
course, we'll have to keep track of what organism is involved,
but that's straight forward."  Uh huh, real straight forward.

To begin a quantitative estimate of the time required to build
such a database, let us first consider only the problem of
identifying and entering the taxonomic names into the database.
On the assumption that there are approximately 25 million named
taxa (at the species and higher levels) and on the assumptions
that there are about half again as many synonyms, we have
approximately 37.5 million names that will have to be processed
and entered into the database.  This processing will require that
(a) the name be identified, (b) the spelling be verified, (c) the
role of the name be established (legitimate name, synonym, etc),
(d) the name typed into the database, and (e) the database entry
be proofread and verified.  Allowing the magnificent total of six
seconds for each of these tasks, we see that processing and
entering each name into the database will require approximately
30 seconds.

Thus, the processing and entry of all names will require
something on the order of 1.1 billion seconds.  Assuming a 40-hour
work week and two weeks vacation per year, this converts into
about 156 person years of work.  At 15,000 per year per
keyboardist, the cost will be over $2,000,000.00 for data
processing and entry alone.  If we argue that the full processing
of a given name will take more than an average of 30 seconds, the
cost obviously gets higher, fast.  Five minutes per name is not a
very high estimate when all of the steps are included.  At five
minutes per, data processing and entry turns into a 1500 person
year project with a cost of over $20,000,000.00.

Since the entire $20,000,000.00 amounts to less than 2/3 of the
budget overrun for the ground control software for the Hubble
Space telescope, on might suggest that this is in fact a medium-
sized project.  At the same time, one could argue that the $20
million (which, by the way, includes NO costs associated with the
development of the system) probably approaches (or exceeds) the
total amount of grant support that will be available in any given
year for all biological database efforts, thereby making this
something more than a "nice, medium-sized project."

Robert J. Robbins
Biotic Systems and Resources
National Science Foundation

Oh yes, one more thing.  From the point of view of a systematic
biologist, a taxonomic database is not complete unless it
includes some system for referencing and describing the actual
physical museum specimens associated with each name (in
systematic biology, one is permitted to coin a name for a species
only if one can provide one or more museum specimens to verify
and validate the description that is given for the species).  It
is estimated that more than 300,000,000 voucher specimens may

Now, assuming that a really fast worker can collect and process
the necessary information for one voucher specimen in a bout 15

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