Business, Finance & Economics

Opinion: Codes of life

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FALMOUTH, Mass. — Each day Nature loses ground. Earth’s biodiversity — the different kinds of wild, living things and where they are — degrades through climate change, exploitation and the submersion of natural landscapes under concrete and structures.

Natural history museums and related institutions can help fight back. They are the keepers of the codes of life. They have the collections and the curators, scientists and educators who understand biodiversity.

Their collections include hundreds of millions of specimens, whose lives extend from the present to millions of years back. They study the form and function of life, its DNA and its evolutionary paths, together with the ways in which human society impacts nature.

Some of this work is specific and immediate. A museum curator can identify and help to prevent the importation of a non-native snail that would cause great harm to our environment and our economy, if it successfully hitchhiked in on a shipment from abroad. She can find the genes that prove a population of fish is unique and that it thus warrants full protection under endangered species law.

Our natural history institutions also tend toward the broad, helping everyday citizens understand the scope, texture and importance of nature. Governmental policies on the environment ebb and flow with political tides, but our natural history institutions hold and articulate a deeper, more constant wisdom.

But our museum and living collections are under threat. Some have been sold or lost, their curators dispersed. We need public support to succeed. Just as our planet needs parks, forests and living oceans, it needs the people and the collected heritage of the wild to understand the life we enjoy and are trying to protect.

On June 25, 2009, international leaders of eight major natural history institutions assembled at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, where I was then the president, to discuss the future uses of our collections. We came up with two compelling recommendations:

First, we — the people of Earth — should preserve viable tissue and DNA of all known species. Efforts for conservation in the wild should be complemented with an initiative to preserve tissue and DNA. Beyond their critical role in identification and evolutionary research, such collections offer the potential to resurrect species after extinction.

A large effort has been made on this front for vascular plants, presumably prompted by the recognized importance of genetic diversity for agricultural crops. Plant seed banks include the Millennium Seed Bank Project of Kew Gardens in England, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault on Norway’s Spitsbergen Island in the Arctic, and Department of Agriculture labs in the United States in places such as Fort Collins, Colo. By comparison, only a limited number of commercialized species of animals have been addressed in such a fashion.

Frozen animal tissue specimens and intact DNA extracts provide genomes for sequencing as well as the potential for generating adult organisms through cloning, as those technologies develop.

Facilities for storing frozen animal tissue exist at some of institutions, but are limited. The Academy of Natural Sciences holds some 20,000 frozen bird specimens, representing more than 26 percent of all known species. A group of institutions from the U.K., the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, India and South Africa that have tissue collections formed a consortium called the Frozen Ark. They are moving forward, but have yet to garner the visibility or support needed.

The goal of preserving viable cells and DNA of all known species can be reached only with proper planning and implementation. Key technical issues — like the choice of taxa for preservation, field and laboratory protocols, storage technology (including alternatives to freezing) — will require engaging donors on a large scale.

The second recommendation is that we should image and digitize information for all “type” specimens, or specimens that are used when a species is first described and remain the references used going forward.

Digital information, which can be accessed immediately over the web, can significantly facilitate the inventory of Earth’s biota and the description of new species.

In addition to the cost and time savings from such access, we have found that requests for loans of specimens have dropped by at least 80 percent when high resolution images are made available. This reduces wear and tear on specimens and eliminates the risk of loss in transit.

The most thorough digitizing initiative has been that for plant type specimens funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Several hundred thousand sheets of dried plants have been imaged at high resolution with a standard protocol. These images are to be made available at jstor.com. This work should now be extended to all type specimens with highest priority given to primary types, or those that are irreplaceable, exemplar or standard for a species.

As is the case for viable tissue and DNA preservation, imaging and digitizing information for all type specimens will require planning, communication and significant funding. The money that is currently available is not commensurate with the task.

Doing what needs to be done to preserve biodiversity, and implementing these two recommendations, will require millions of dollars. It’s a lot, but it’s also less than the billions required for many other global initiatives of less consequence.

The United Nations has declared 2010 to be the International Year of Biodiversity. We would be wise to take that seriously. The codes of life are being lost as we speak. Unless we step forward now to preserve and understand them, we will never even know what we have lost.

William Y. Brown is president & CEO of the Woods Hole Research Center and president of the Natural Science Collections Alliance.

Photo of William Y. Brown taken by Gigi Gatewood.