Could NFTs finance the discovery of new insect species?

Three-dimensional models of insects, like that of an undescribed species of Baltic amber parasitoid wasp, generated using micro-CT, are extremely valuable surrogates for real specimens, as they can be shared with the whole taxonomic community. In a new article from the journal Megataxes, an entomologist sees a future in which non-fungible tokens (NFTs) could lead to the collection of virtual 3D models of insect holotype specimens, thereby subsidizing increased digitization of entomological collections and the discovery of new species. (Image courtesy of Jonathan Bremer and Elijah Talamas, Florida State Arthropod Collection)

By Samuel Bolton, Ph.D.

Samuel Bolton, Ph.D.

Samuel Bolton, Ph.D.

A mass extinction is in progress. Climate change, habitat destruction and the use of pesticides appear to be causing the number of insects to drop worldwide. And yet scientists have only discovered and described about a fifth of all insect species in the world. As Rome burns down, a new type of asset is rapidly gaining popularity. The non-fungible token, or NFT, allows virtual ownership of almost everything from Jack Dorsey’s first tweet to a GIF of a cat with a pop-tart body.

These tokens seem emblematic of Nero’s madness, because their production requires a large amount of energy, resulting in a colossal carbon footprint. However, carbon emissions caused by non-fungible tokens are expected to drop soon. Ethereum, the main platform for NFTs, is set to cut its power consumption by more than 99%. Assuming this to happen, is it possible to use NFTs as a force for good in the world? Is a new and better type of DTV on the way?

I am a taxonomist who hopes so. The most disheartening thing about being a taxonomist in modern times is the realization that we won’t be able to discover and describe many of the world’s arthropod species before they become extinct. There are still millions of unknown species, especially in tropical regions of the world. The problem is exacerbated by the availability of the most critical specimens, what we call holotypes. A holotype is the most important specimen from which a species has been named and described.

In the megadiverse parts of the tropics, taxonomists are hampered in their efforts to describe new species because most of the holotypes from these regions are kept in museums all over Europe and North America. Taxonomists need to access holotypes to compare them with new species. This is to make sure that these species are really new to science rather than just a variant of another closely related species that is already described. However, because holotypes are so valuable, curators are often reluctant to lend them out, assuming they are even free to do so; some museums prohibit the loan of holotypes. How to rectify this? How do we make sure everyone can see the holotypes, many of which are locked in dusty old cabinets?

VERO vs. NFT

While non-fungible tokens (NFTs) have a mixed reputation, a proposed new application of the NFT concept called “Virtual Equivalent of a Real Item” (VERO) could make it possible to virtually buy and recover valuable and rare items. In a new article from the journal Megataxes, an entomologist sees a future in which VEROs could lead to the collection of virtual 3D models of insect holotype specimens, thereby subsidizing increased digitization of entomological collections and the discovery of new species. (Image courtesy of Samuel Bolton, Ph.D.)

NFTs can provide the solution. My colleague Joe Cora is a software engineer with a background in biodiversity informatics, and he and I just published a scientific paper – which is more predictive than inventive – in which we define a type of NFT that confers the virtual property of a representative 3D model of a real and rare object, such as a holotype. We call this NFT the virtual equivalent of a real object (VERO). From the moment the VERO is struck, the actual item and the virtual equivalent may be sold as separate assets by the owner. Because most regular NFTs lack interactivity, it’s hard for their owners to feel in their possession. Compare Jack Dorsey’s first tweet with a VERO of the Eiffel Tower. VEROs would provide an increased sense of virtual ownership in online virtual worlds, where the owner can show them to anyone and potentially everyone. Collectors will also be able to handle and display their VEROs without worrying about loss, theft or damage.

How would VEROs help us describe new species? High-resolution 3D models of holotypes are extremely valuable substitutes for real specimens. Once generated using some form of technology, such as a confocal laser scanning microscope or micro-CT, these 3D models can be shared with the entire taxonomic community. But generating these 3D models is expensive. This is one of the main obstacles to the description of new species. VEROs offer a possible solution by allowing museums to use 3D models of specimens to mint and sell VEROs. A rare or unique specimen, such as a holotype, should earn enough money to pay for some or all of the costs of generating a realistic 3D model from that specimen. This would make the production of 3D models much more affordable. Much like classical NFTs, anyone can view these 3D models, allowing taxonomists in the tropics, where so many species are still waiting to be described, to describe new species without being greatly hampered by the availability of holotypes. This in turn leads to the generation of more holotypes, in turn leading to more funds through the production of more VEROs.

NFTs can therefore provide an important solution to a problem that has created a barrier to taxonomists for many decades. But buying a VERO wouldn’t just be a favor for science. The VEROs would be able to anchor the online virtual worlds in our real world. In VERO-friendly virtual worlds, each object is the one and only version of a real world object. It is therefore appropriate that “vero” should also be Italian for authentic.

But maybe the real appeal of VEROs is that they would remove many of the burdens associated with collecting. This is especially true for entomologists. There is no doubt that many aspiring insect collectors are put off by the technical and practical challenges of building and maintaining an insect collection. Specialized knowledge is required as well as funds to travel. Many insects are also very fragile and susceptible to damage. By placing these loads on professional collections, VEROs could offer a completely easier collecting experience for people who cannot afford the time needed to build a serious collection of real insects.

3d mite model

Three-dimensional models of insects, like that of an undescribed mite species, generated by confocal laser scanning microscopy, are extremely valuable substitutes for actual specimens, as they can be shared with the entire taxonomic community. In a new article from the journal Megataxes, an entomologist sees a future in which non-fungible tokens (NFTs) could lead to the collection of virtual 3D models of insect holotype specimens, thereby subsidizing increased digitization of entomological collections and the discovery of new species. (Image courtesy of Samuel Bolton, Ph.D.)

VEROs can also be integrated into online games and applications, where buyers can interact with them. You could make your VERO your avatar or team member in a virtual online world. And, unlike real insects, VERO insects cannot be damaged by interaction. VEROs also do not take up space, neither physically nor on your hard disk. This means that whether you are locked in a small apartment or a small house, you don’t have to worry about where you are going to store your collection, and you don’t have to worry about keeping your collections free of charge. parasites. You don’t even have to step out of your front door to acquire your collection. Perhaps for these reasons, VEROs can completely change the number of people who choose to collect.

If VEROs become valuable because they can support the conversion of millions of scientifically significant specimens into virtual assets, then they can attract serious investors as well as collectors. Intact environments such as tropical rainforests would become rich grounds for collecting biodiversity, the raw material needed to generate VEROs of holotypes. Fortunately, discovering and describing new species is harmless to the environment. Indeed, preserving these environments guarantees that they remain a rich source of biodiversity. It would be ironic if it were necessary to create a virtual commodity to cause us to take better care of the natural world. But we can hope.

Samuel Bolton, Ph.D., is Curator of Acari at the Florida State Arthropod Collection, Plant Industry Division, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Website: www.vero-nft.org. Email: [email protected]