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September 14, 2009 | by  | in News |
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Biologists discover mathematics, plan to save species from imminent extinction

Possibilities of what biologists could achieve if they discover physics mind-boggling

The algorithm used by Google to rank web pages could be used to order an ecosystem’s species to help analyse the consequences of their extinction.

That was the conclusion of American scientists Stefano Allensina and Mercedes Pascual in a paper they published earlier this month in journal PLoS Computational Biology.

The Google algorithm, PageRank, ranks the importance of web pages on the basis of the number and importance of other web pages that link to it.

PageRank underlies Google’s eponymous search engine.

Allensia and Pascual were inspired by PageRank to develop a similar algorithm, which ranks a species’ importance to the survival of other species in an ecosystem on the basis of the number and importance of other species it “points” to in the system’s food-web.

This information could then be used to help forecast the effects of a species’ extinction on the extinction risk of other species.

In their paper, Googling Food Webs, Allensia and Pascual explain that “consequences of species losses such as secondary extinctions are difficult to forecast because species are not isolated, but interact instead in a complex network of ecological relationships,” and note this is a “pressing problem given current human impacts on the planet”.

Upon learning of the paper, geeky website slashdot.org promptly exploded with snarky comments that the PageRank’s only relevance to the biologists’ algorithm is that, like PageRank, it is an application of a Markov process—which mathematicians have known about for ages.

Salient thinks the slashdot-ers are just jealous that they haven’t written a paper that made the front page of the BBC News website (or the pages of Salient).

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