Butterfly collections at the California Academy of Sciences

Natural history museums. The name alone just makes them seem a thing of the past, right? But a session at the recent AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) meeting centered on how, to the contrary, these institutions are playing a critical role in addressing 21st Century problems, especially with the aid of new technologies.

Specimen collections are at the heart of natural history museums—the Natural History Museum of London, the Smithsonian, and certainly here at the California Academy of Sciences. They represent all the life described on Earth. Worldwide, that’s 4.5 billion specimens representing 1.9 million species, collected over 300 years, said Ian Owens, of the Natural History Museum in London. That sounds like a lot, but with an estimated 8.7 million species on Earth (or more, since some estimates put it as high as 20 million species) we have a long way to go.

Why do we need to know what lives on Earth? Why do we need these collections? Owens outlined many benefits: these collections motivated us to think about extinction, they explain evolutionary processes, and they have led us to think about our place in the world, especially in the context of the age and history of our planet. Kirk Johnson of the Smithsonian echoed these comments, and added that we live in a unique time in human history, and these collections can help us understand the ramifications of many of today’s problems, including habitat loss, species declines, climate change, and ocean acidification. “Our subject of interest [life on Earth] is burning right now.”

So how do we tackle these challenges? By making collections data available to everyone. The more we all know, and understand about life on Earth, the better able we’ll be to make decisions about how to protect it, what to protect, and how to act now. And the way to make the data from these collections more readily available is through digitizing them. If you follow Science Today, you know we’ve reported on Academy’s efforts to digitize our collections, and others’ (and look for a new video this spring about our new Magnify technology to digitize specimens in micron-level detail).

This process involves taking images, then attaching all of the what, where, and when data about the collected specimen to the record so that other scientists and people just like you and me can access a wealth of information about that specimen anytime, anywhere.

And it’s not just the end results that are available to the public—more and more collection managers and museums are relying on the public to create these digital records. Crowdsourcing and online citizen science projects can get these records created quickly, cheaply, and even accurately. “There’s no ambiguity if this is good data or not, this is good data,” Owens stressed. “This is really a new intellectual model for museums. If you wanted to see the specimens in the past, it was very, very difficult process… Now we’re trying to make data available as quickly and openly as possible.”

Jonathan Coddington of the Smithsonian wants to make collections freely available to the public, too, but he’s coming at it from a different angle—he wants genomic sequencing data made available for every single family in the eukaryote tree. That sounds like a lofty goal, but it’s not unrealistic.

Coddington studies comparative behavior in patterns of spider webs and, decades ago, conducted much of his research in Costa Rica. At the time, he recalls, you couldn’t go anywhere at night (when it’s easier to spot webs) without tripping over a golden toad. “Now that toad is extinct,” he explained, “and that bothers me… To manage our planet sustainably, we need more and more data about our planet,” he said. And that data can come from genomes in a project he’s working on called the Global Genome Initiative.

Of the almost 9,000 families of eukaryotes, there are already 6,500 in GenBank, an online genetic sequence database, Coddington said. And while there’s still a ways to go, Coddington believes that genetic sequencing is only going to get easier and less expensive.

Not only is the sequencing technology easier to come by, but the way to store the sources of this DNA has also become more accessible. Tissue samples (as opposed to an entire organism) are needed for sequencing, and many can be stored, frozen, in a small space (to understand this process and storage, see how we do it at the Academy in this video). Coddington believes these storage facilities can be kept where the most biodiversity is found—unlike specimen collections, which are often in North America and Europe, far from where the organism was collected.

This is not only a great opportunity for nations to understand and manage their biodiversity, it also provides data for the entire world to see and understand. “We’re educating our kids about genomics and genetics and in the future, everyone is going to make a health decision based on this,” Coddington said. “So learning about the natural world in this same way will just be second nature.”

(To learn more about the state of natural history museum collections, read more in this recent Nature News article.)

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