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MSU Part Of NSF-Funded Project to Digitize, Study Important Plant Specimens

Close up image of Coenogonium Linkii, a lichen from the Peruvian Amazon

Michigan State University is part of a multi-million-dollar grant to digitize and study bryophyte and lichen, two important types of plants that are hosts to what are known as cryptobiotic communities—hidden microorganisms that play a critical role in stabilizing soil, preventing erosion, absorbing rainfall, and providing nutrients for the growing plants around them.

Three people around a desk in a lab. They are smiling.

Matt Chansler, MSU Herbarium collections assistant (front), Alan Prather (center), and Jaylen Johnson, technical aide (right), preparing plant specimens from the MSU Herbarium for digitization. Courtesy photo

Alan Prather, MSU plant biologist and director of the MSU Herbarium, along with colleagues from 25 institutions across the United States, recently received a three-year, $3.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation to image and to digitize associated metadata for close to 1.2 million lichen and bryophyte specimens housed in their respective collections.

The project, “Building a Global Consortium of Bryophytes and Lichens: Keystones of Cryptobiotic Communities (GLOBAL),” will enable researchers from around the world to access specimen metadata and photos of the plants.

“Natural history collections are a physical record of our planet’s biodiversity across space and time,” said Jessica Budke, principal investigator of the project and director of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville Herbarium (TENN). “These specimens not only serve as records of the past, but they are a critical resource for our future. They help us to answer important questions surrounding invasive species and conservation biology, and to describe species that are new to science.”

The MSU Herbarium was founded in 1863 with the donation of a large collection of plants from Michigan and the eastern United States. Centered on plant and fungal diversity from Michigan, the herbarium collection contains more than half a million specimens of plants and fungi, dating back to the early 19th century, from even before the university’s founding—and is among the 50 largest herbaria in the United States. These plants serve as a record of the natural heritage of Michigan and can help scientists understand how habitat destruction, invasive species and climate change have affected our biota.

Additionally, the collection is rich in lichens from the Caribbean and the sub-Antarctic region. The lichen collection, with 120,000 accessioned collections, is among the 10 largest in North America and, because of its geographical scope, of international importance as a major resource for the study of lichens. For instance, 27 new lichen species were described from the MSU Herbarium collections in the past year alone.

Photo of what looks like a rock with dark and light brown spots.

Placynthium glaciale, a new species of lichen from Glacier Bay National Park, first found in 2014 and its discovery noted in The Lichenologist in May 2020. Credit: MSU Herbarium.

“This nationwide project to digitize lichen and bryophyte collections could not be more timely,” said Prather, associate professor in the MSU Department of Plant Biology in the College of Natural Science. “Because so many of us are working from home and many students are pursuing their education online, having museum resources online is a huge win for everyone. No longer will people have to come visit the MSU Herbarium to see our collections or to use them in education and research. Having the data in a format that can be downloaded and integrated with other data, for instance, climate data, enables these big data to be used in major research questions that we could not answer in the past.”

Researchers with the project will partner with Zooniverse, a citizen–science web portal, to develop an online platform for citizen scientists to make observations on character traits that can improve the information and fill in some of the gaps not covered by the scientific labeling process.

These integrated data will form a critical resource for evolutionary and ecological studies that researchers hope lead to a deeper understanding of the role bryophytes and lichens play in carbon and nitrogen cycling, the evolution of biodiversity, and more.

In addition to collecting information about the specimen, undergraduate students at the partner institutions will have an opportunity to receive funding for professional training in image capture and processing, digitization, and collections management. Researchers will leverage local resources to promote underrepresented students in STEM fields and integrate a public outreach component to K-12 science classes and other science youth groups.

“This project represents a collaborative effort of 25 major research institutions,” Budke said. “It will push the field of organismal biology forward by leaps and bounds, enabling us to tackle large-scale biology questions that none of us could answer alone.”

Story via College of Natural Science.

Banner image: MSU’s Herbarium collection contains more than half a million specimens of plants and fungi dating back to the early 19th century and is among the 50 largest herbaria in the United States. Additionally, its lichen collection, with 120,000 accessioned collections, is among the 10 largest in North America and, because of its geographical scope, of international importance as a major resource for the study of lichens. Pictured above is Coenogonium Linkii, a lichen from the Peruvian Amazon found on the bark of the Inga acrocephala tree in 2016. Credit: MSU Herbarium.

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