Herbaria, Preservation & Science

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Charles Davis, director of the Harvard University Herbaria, looks at specimens collected by Henry David Thoreau. Davis was a co-editor of a special issue of Philosophical Transactions B, which advocates for the continued preservation of biological collections. Jon Chase/Harvard file photo

Collecting plant specimens and pressing them for further inspection is a pastime many of us have tried at least once in our lives. It was fun while it lasted. And some beautiful mementos may have survived to tell the tale. The opportunity to look at and learn from plant specimens collected by Henry David Thoreau? Priceless. Thanks to Peter Reuell, a writer and publicist at Harvard University, for this:

Critical collections

Importance of biological samples and their preservation goes beyond the obvious

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The Harvard University Herbaria holds a specimen of trillium collected by Henry David Thoreau. Jon Chase/Havard file photo

More than a century ago, when botanists and naturalists were in the field collecting plant and animal specimens, they couldn’t have imagined that scientists would one day be able to extract DNA from samples to understand how plants and animals are related to one another.

They couldn’t have imagined that their collections could one day shed light on the effects of global climate change, or the emergence and spread of pathogens, the spread of fungal-driven amphibian extinction, or the effectiveness of policies aimed at reducing pollution in the U.S.

And the fact that they couldn’t have predicted those uses, said Emily Meineke, a postdoctoral researcher working in the lab of Charles Davis, professor of organismic and evolutionary biology and director of the Harvard University Herbaria, shows exactly why such collections need to be preserved for future generations.

“In 200 years, we have no idea what technology will be available and what people will be able to use these specimens for,” she said. “They contain a wealth of hidden data that we might not even understand exists in our lifetime, so there’s a practical element to keeping and preserving them.”

That’s precisely the argument Meineke, Davis, T. Jonathan Davies from the University of British Columbia, and Barnabas Daru from Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi, are making in a Nov. 19 special issue of Philosophical Transactions B.

The four served as co-editors of the issue, which is dedicated to exploring the creative ways in which researchers have made use of biological collections around the world and to advocating for their continued preservation.

“The main theme of the issue is using museum collections to understand global change,” Meineke explained. “The idea is that a growing number of studies use museum specimens for this sort of thing, but we’re still at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what we can do…

Read the whole article here.

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