Saturday, 8 December 2012

BioNumbers: An Online Database of Useful Biological Numbers ...


Who wants to know how many cells are in a single colony of Escherichia coli? (3.39). Or the egg size of Drosophila melanogaster? (12.3 nL). Or how about the genomic mutation rate in Arabidopsis thaliana? (0.28 ? 0.42 mutations per diploid genome per generation).

Who am I kidding? Who wouldn?t want to know those numbers?!

Now there?s a website for numerical bio geeks to scour for random information, or for researchers to find useful numbers for their experiments and papers. BioNumbers is an online database started in 2007, which consolidates numbers from the biological world.

Each entry has a link to a reference, with some information on methodology, so you can fact-check for yourself before throwing a number in a manuscript. Users can submit numbers (with references) and ?wish lists? of numbers they?d like to see.

As well as general browsing (via which I found the numbers cited above), to test out the search prowess of the site, I threw in a few search terms including ?seeds? (my research area). A few results came up, but I was mostly interested to find information on the estimated divergence of several groups like monocots and dicots (130 ? 220 MYA), or mosses and seed plants (c. 430 MYA). Information like this might have been helpful when I was an undergraduate, but I?m not sure I?d use it now ? except perhaps for adding some finer details to an almost-complete manuscript.

For my own research, I?d have a hard time finding useful numbers from their current database. First, because I?m an ecologist more than anything else and the site is largely molecular focused, and second because I don?t work on those ?traditional? species like Arabidopsis or Drosophila. I can, however, see how the database could grow to include numbers of interest to other fields. For instance, in my research area of seed dispersal, there are piles of scattered information about seed sizes, fruit compositions and diet breadth of frugivores.

That?s probably getting away from the goal of the database though, which is to build a reference source similar to those used in chemistry or engineering (what is the melting point of Tungsten, anyway?). Which is where I think the site falls down a little; one of the troublesome things about biology as a scientific discipline is that it?s just not as clear cut as, say, physics or chemistry. Yes, there are those of us who work on ?model species?, but many of us boldly go where no scientist has gone before, researching new study species. Or, like myself, live in smallish countries where general information is not abundant on our chosen species.

An additional segment is the ?BioNumber of the Month? (several months out of date at the time of writing). Each month?s link leads to a few pages of text about a particular value: but having said that, none of the links I checked out made for particularly friendly or accessible reading. This idea really fascinates me, though: I would totally read a fun, monthly article about some crazy number I wouldn?t otherwise consider, but I get enough dry text through journal articles, so a livelier approach would be appreciated.

The site has the potential to be a great information sharing venture, with an almost crowd-sourcing feel. We all read journal articles all day every day anyway; what if the next time you came across a value of interest, you had a website to throw it onto? There will be some necessary questions about validating the source of information, but that?s a worthwhile question to be considering in this current age of information sharing over the internet highway.

In short, right now for me this is a fun toy, but probably not a practical tool. But then, I am a hippy ecologist. So what do you think of the database? Is there anything you could see yourself using? What numbers do you wish you had easy access to for your research?


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