How has life on earth evolved? How do we foster the respect needed to preserve and protect its future? These are the themes the California Academy of Sciences will tackle when it opens in new - and architecturally stunning - premises in autumn 2008. The $484-million facility will house an extraordinary wealth of exhibits; luckily, the 20 million research specimens and 38,000 live animals already in the collections of this 152-year-old institution have given the authorities something of a head start on the project. It was always hoped that the building would be a masterpiece of green architecture, and Renzo Piano's design, clearly inspired by the natural world, doesn't disappoint. The organically shaped living roof - a vast expanse of green, undulating domes - will eventually accommodate 1.7 million native flowers and plants.
Inside, exhibits cover a huge spectrum of life on our planet - and worlds beyond. They include the country's largest planetarium; its 90ft-tall (27m) domed screen allows visitors to watch real-time NASA feeds. Elsewhere, the 212,000-gallon tank of the Steinhart Aquarium will be home to 4,000 fish and 1,500 colonies of living coral. The four-storey rainforest exhibit takes visitors along a spiral walkway that takes them from ground level to above the tree canopy, where birds and butterflies fly free. Visitors can also take an elevator to an underground tropical habitat beneath the forest that includes a water tunnel, home to anacondas, piranhas and giant catfish. Another exhibit recreates the environment of an American subtropical swamp, with inhabitants including a rare white alligator. Other displays showcase the zoological landscape of Africa by means of traditional dioramas, explore biodiversity and the effect of climate change on natural habitats in California, recreate the California coast, and examine insights gained by expeditions and the latest scientific discoveries.