NSF grants to digitize biological collections

Posted: 8/4/2011

Tim James and Richard Rabeler Professor Timothy James and Rich Rabeler, assistant research scientist, have been awarded grants from the National Science Foundation as part of an initiative to integrate and digitize information for biologists, policy-makers and the general public.

To respond to the need for greater accessibility of biological collections data, NSF has awarded grants through its Advancing Digitization of Biological Collections (ADBC) program. The program is expected to result in more efficient and innovative ways to provide access to information in biological research collections, and to speed up the process of integrating diverse information on the genetic, ecological, organismal, and molecular biology of specimens in collections.

James, assistant curator of fungi at the U-M Herbarium, was awarded over $210,000 for “North American Lichens and Bryophytes: Sensitive Indicators of Environmental Quality and Change.” Researchers will image about 2.3 million North American lichen and bryophyte specimens from more than 60 collections to address questions of how species distributions change after major environmental events, both in the past and projected into the future. 

Lichens and bryophytes (mosses and their relatives) are among the most sensitive indicators of environmental change, and are dominant organisms in arctic-alpine and desert habitats, the vanguard of climate change. Large-scale distribution mapping will help identify regions where such changes are imminent, fostering proactive initiatives to protect these organisms. 

“The value of every biological collection lies in the information attached to the specimens,” said James. “By enhancing the information attached to the moss and lichen specimens through photographs, geographic coordinates and collection notes we can use the latest technology to leverage the rich legacy left by past botanical pioneers. By comparison of historical collections to present distributions we have a window into how habitat loss and climate change have affected the distribution of these often overlooked organisms.”

Rabeler, U-M Herbarium collections manager, received over $190,000 for “Plants, Herbivores, and Parasitoids: A Model System for the study of Tri-Trophic Associations.” Researchers will unify some eight million records in 34 collections to answer how the distributions and phenologies of the plants, pests, and parasitoids relate to each other, in a tri-trophic databasing and imaging project. Data from this approach will benefit basic scientific questions and practical applications in the agricultural sciences, conservation biology, ecosystem studies, and climate change and biogeography research. 

“The ADBC project is a great boost to efforts to digitize specimen data,” said Rabeler. “I am excited that the University Herbarium is represented in two of the first three funded thematic networks.”