Forum - Improving on Linnaeus
The science of systematics is the branch of biology that seeks to document
Systematics organize the world's plant and animal organisms by scientific
names arranged in hierarchical order, based on relationships among species.
Such classification represents what we know about living or extinct organisms
and helps predict species behavior.
Progress in systematics depends on accumulating knowledge about millions of
species and organizing it efficiently for effective retrieval and use.
Traditionally, this has been done through printed media like monographs,
guides, and keys. Also, hundreds of millions of specimens and associated data
are stored in systematic collections around the world.
Today's modern, high-speed information processing technologies and the
creation of relational databases now allow information about species to be
extracted from these scattered resources in any combination to meet a defined
When integrated with information in other databases, this knowledge provides
new insights into the organization of life on Earth.
Moreover, these electronic databases save scarce financial resources by
making the information more widely available than ever before. Users can now
identify many organisms themselves, freeing systematists to conduct research.
For example, to help users of systematic data distinguish good fungi from
the bad, the ARS Systematic Botany and Mycology Laboratory has developed a
large database of fungi worldwide. It serves as the basis for developing expert
systems to identify them.
"The world database includes about 150,000 host-fungus records from
outside the United States and is updated weekly," says ARS mycologist
David F. Farr, who administers the system.
It also contains an account of each fungus, its hosts, and its geographic
distribution and documentation, as well as other useful information.
A second user-friendly database includes information from the book Fungi
on Plants and Flam Products in the United States by Farr and others. This
database contains reports from over 4.000 literature sources, while emphasizing
reports of fungi on U.S. hosts.
These reports are of immediate interest to USDA's Animal and Plant Health
Inspection Service (APHIS) quarantine officials, whose mission it is to prevent
the introduction of exotic diseases and pests.
In addition, more than 1 million specimens in the U.S. National Fungus
Collections are currently being computerized as part of these databases.
"We've entered label data from about 600,000 specimens, including the
rusts, smuts, polypores, and asexual fungi. We're now working on the
ascomycetes," says Farr.
This entire system is important not only for providing identifications of
agriculturally important fungi, hut also for evaluating any risks they might
For example, to identify host-specific parasites like rusts and smuts that
could devastate a specific host crop, one can readily select all of the fungal
species on one particular host, note their geographic distribution, work with
the descriptive literature, study representative specimens, and come up with a
In developing and setting up the system, Farr has made the information
available to all on-line usersincluding mycologists and plant
pathologists worldwide, as well as extension agents and APHIS identifiers and
plant quarantine experts.
"These databases give us immediate access to the latest scientific data
on fungi on plants and plant products in the world. It is one of the first
resources that we depend on when identifying fungi and making decisions about
entry of commodities into the States," says APHIS mycologist Mary Palm,
who works at the Systematic Botany and Mycology lab.
"Previously, this information was scattered and difficultor
impossibleto obtain. Now, with a single source of systematic information,
identifications can be made more rapidly and more knowledgeably.
"It has allowed the importation of certain plant products that had
previously been prohibited entry because of the lack of knowledge about the
organisms in the United Stales. The information has also helped open markets
for U.S. exports."
The system, which took several years to develop, has been available for 2
years and can be accessed free of charge at any time via the Internet (http://nt.ars-grin.gov/sbmlweb/fungi/index.cfm).
According to Farr, about 300 users have logged onto the database over the
last 3 months. Plans are to expand the system to include all known fungi
occurring on plants worldwide and to add black-and-while illustrations
(eventually color) so users can compare pictures of fungi.
"By better managing species information, we can make it usable in
different ways than ever before. And the new methods do a better job of
classification than the Swedish father of modern taxonomy, Carl von Linne
[Latinized as Linnaeus] ever envisioned," says Farr.
ARS Information Staff