Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Botanist and the Digital Age

Fig.1. George Washington Carver
(
Credit: Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1906)

Last week, 25 specimens of fungi collected by the famed botanist and inventor George Washington Carver were discovered in the Wisconsin State Herbarium at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Born into slavery around 1864, Carver became one of the most prominent African-American scientists and is now well known for his research with peanuts, sweet potatoes, and soybeans.

Before Carver became a peanut-product inventor and a champion for agricultural education in the rural South, he studied botany at what is today Iowa State University. He was the college’s first African-American student when he began in 1891 and later became its first black faculty member. His master’s work in pathology and mycology allowed him to explore a group of plant pathogens that includes culprits of the potato blight and Dutch elm disease.

Today, some of Carver's collected plants sit in the Wisconsin State Herbarium, along with 1.2 million plant, fungi, and lichen specimens. The microfungi collection alone holds 120,000 specimens and is part of a National Science Foundation-funded database project involving 38 different institutions.

The project at the Wisconsin State Herbarium includes taking a photograph of each sample’s label, as well as manually entering text into an online database. A user contacted the herbarium last week about a possible mistake in a specimen’s location, but later review by curatorial staff revealed that they held specimens from George Washington Carver. With 100,000 samples yet to process, there may be more undiscovered microfungi samples hiding in the collections.

The herbarium’s databasing project is only one of many around the world that seek to make collections more accessible. Efforts, like the Smithsonian’s Transcription Center, seek to crowd-source digitization. Museum staff take detailed photos of collections, and volunteers later transcribe handwritten collection labels, historic documents, letters, and more. With 5,946 volunteers, digitization immediately expands the impact of collections through publicly accessible data on specimens. The U.S. Herbarium housed at the National Museum of Natural History holds about 5 million plant specimens and is part of this massive project to reach researchers around the world.

Beyond online accessibility, digitization projects are essential for the survival and improvement of collections. In an article published last November in Current Biology, researchers at Oxford University and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh found a startling number of mislabeled specimens in herbaria around the world. An examination of 4,500 African gingers revealed mislabeling or misidentification of at least 58 percent of the specimens. Further study of sweet potato relatives in an online database showed that at least 40 percent were listed under outdated synonyms, and 16 percent were listed under unrecognizable names.

By putting plant records and their associated data online, quality improvement of collections becomes a community effort. Perhaps more importantly, these records become a body of work on the history of the natural world and scientific research. George Washington Carver was a man ahead of his time, and a return to the collections sheds light on his life's work and passion.


References

Bagley, M. (2013, December 6). George Washington Carver: Biography, Inventions & Quotes. Live Science. Retrieved from: http://www.livescience.com/41780-george-washington-carver.html

Goodwin, Z. A., Harris, D. J., Filer, D., Wood, J. R. I., & Scotland, R. W. (2015, November 16). Widespread mistaken identity in tropical plant collections. Current Biology, vol. 25 (22): R1066-R1067. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2015.10.002.

Tenenbaum, D. (2016, February 12). Specimens from George Washington Carver discovered at UW-Madison. UWM News. Retrieved from: http://news.wisc.edu/specimens-from-george-washington-carver-discovered-at-uw-madison/

Wolf, A., Zimmerman, N. B., Anderegg, W. R. L., Busby, P. E., & Christensen, J. (2016, January 20). Altitudinal shifts of the native and introduced flora of California in the context of 20th-century warming. Global Ecology and Biogeography. doi: 10.1111/geb.12423


Glossary

mycology
Branch of biology concerned with the scientific study of fungi.
microfungi
Fungi and fungal-like organisms that lack a large, multicellular fruiting body. 

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