UT Herbarium Helps Piece Together Biodiversity Puzzle

KNOXVILLE—The University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Herbarium is playing a starring role in exposing environmental changes. The university will be one of ninety-two National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded institutions piecing together a biodiversity puzzle spread out over the U.S.

Centuries of biodiversity data are being housed in museums and universities all over the country. The problem is these records are disconnected, incomplete, and inaccessible to the general public and researchers. The NSF-funded Advancing Digitization of Biological Collections (ADBC) program seeks to solve this problem by linking together the pieces of the biodiversity puzzle.

UT’s Herbarium collection of more than twelve thousand species of North American mosses offers keen insight to environmental change on this planet.

“Lichens and bryophytes (algae and mosses) are among the most sensitive indicators of environmental change because the entire organism is directly exposed to the environment,” said Ed Schilling, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and the principal investigator for the project. “Their simple structure requires them to take in nutrients and water directly from the air. Knowing where these organisms have grown in the past, and comparing this information with where they now occur, provides unique insight into the direct effects of environmental change.”

Under the grant, a team led by Schilling and colleague Karen Hughes will gather the current information they have on lichens and bryophytes in the UT Herbarium, and it will then be combined with that of more than sixty other institutional collections, and made available to researchers who are studying issues in biodiversity or environmental change. UT’s collection of bryophytes is one of the largest of any public institution and is currently housed inside Hoskins Library. However, the goal is to allow anyone to access the information electronically via the Internet.

The goal of the ADBC program is to streamline and increase accessibility to valuable information residing as ‘dark data’ in all collections across the U.S. The hope is this will stimulate new research possibilities. Standardized digital photos of specimens will be linked with DNA sequences, pathogens found on the specimens, environmental variables at the collecting localities, and electron micrographs (images taken by electron microscopes) for example.

One award will establish a central National Resource for Digitization of Biological Collections, and three large collaborative awards will allow for the development of thematic collections networks (TCNs) to digitize and mobilize data from biological research collections.

Each of the three TCNs focuses on grand scientific questions in biodiversity and offers multiple research opportunities as data become widely available.

The TCN awards include ninety-two institutions in forty-five states.

Training for future researchers on collections techniques, informatics technology, and data integration is also part of the effort. The awards provide graduate and undergraduate training opportunities and outreach to K-12 educators, students, and non-scientists.

For more information about UT Knoxville’s Herbarium, visit http://tenn.bio.utk.edu/.

C O N T A C T :

Whitney Holmes (865-974-5460, wholmes7@utk.edu)

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