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UPDATE: 02 June 2014

Transfer of the US National Parasite Collection (USNPC)

In 2013, an agreement was articulated between the USDA/ARS and the Smithsonian Institution to transfer the USNPC in its entirety (fluid specimens, slide specimens, frozen tissues, and reprints) to the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in Washington, D.C. Current collections staff, including senior curator Dr. Eric P. Hoberg and support scientists/managers from the ARS will be transferred with the collection and with adjunct appointments in the NMNH will provide continuity and assistance for curation and accessibility during and after the relocation. New curatorial controls will be established under NMNH guidance by Dr. Anna J. Phillips and collections management policy of the NMNH as implemented by the Department of Invertebrate Zoology.

Full announcement can be found here.

Biosystemations & The National Parasite Collection

Parasite Collections, Systematics and Biodiversity- A Context:

Burgeoning awareness about biodiversity emphasizes the fundamental importance of museum collections and the contributions of systematists and taxonomists in documenting the structure and history of the biosphere. An essential role is served by this infrastructure in collecting, preparing, analyzing and disseminating information about the specimens that represent species, document a range of complex biological associations from symbioses to parasitism, and form the tapestry and the myriad facets of biodiversity. Parasitologists participate and contribute to this broader documentation and understanding of global biodiversity. Such fundamental studies are of increasing importance as we continue to recognize that the parasitic diseases of humans, our domestic animal food resources, and wild biodiversity are internationally a major concern in this time of dynamic environmental change. At the international level parasites are now viewed as significant components of biodiversity that must be included in plans for survey and inventory, conservation and other national needs focused on understanding environmental integrity and ecosystem function.

The US National Parasite Collection, A Century of Service:

The Agricultural Research Service of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been the home for mission oriented and problem solving research on parasites and pathogens that directly or indirectly threaten animal health, food safety and the environment. A core facility within the current laboratory structure is the USNPC located at the Henry A. Wallace, Beltsville Agricultural Research Center near Washington, D.C.

Since 1892 the parasitological collections held by the USDA have been the focus for development of knowledge about the distribution of parasites, pathogens and diseases. The evolution of these collections has followed the expansion of research programs targeted to solve a number of emerging problems for agriculture during the last century. Concurrently, what is now the USNPC became the focal point for field and empirically based research emphasizing survey and inventory, systematics, biogeography, and ecology among a diverse assemblage of helminth and protozoan parasites of vertebrates and contributed to experimental studies to address the biology of an array of economically significant parasites. Thus, over the past century, the USNPC has served an essential and dual role for science and society in providing both a foundation of knowledge about the host and geographic distribution of parasites and in contributing to the resolution of a number of real world problems facing the farm and industrial production of food animals, food safety, and protection of the environment.

The USNPC, a national and international resource for systematic, taxonomic, diagnostic ecological and epidemiological research in parasitology has been continuously maintained by the USDA for over 100 years. The USNPC has served as a critical resource for all aspects of parasitology in North America and globally, and provides the foundation for all programs within the ARS and elsewhere that deal with the systematics and taxonomy of agriculturally and economically significant helminthic and protozoan parasites. The scope and depth of the Collection are unparalleled in North America. Current holdings are substantial and the collection is among the largest in the world (in excess of 100,000 lots, and over 20 million individual specimens; 3,000 holotypes, 7,000 type series) and accumulates about 1,000-1500 new lots of specimens annually. A primary role of the USNPC is acquisition, curation, and long-term maintenance of the specimens-based collections; and development and expansion of the collections database as an irreplaceable national archive. The specimen collection is linked to extensive documentation for host occurrence, geographic range, and other core data with which to assess the current and historical distribution of parasites and pathogens can be found. Here is a link to the full Smithsonian Institute announcement, and more information can be found at the invertebrate zoology department of the Smithsonian Institute.

A uniquely federal role is served as a center for diagnostics, identification and dissemination of information. Parasitologists in the ARS and others working in systematics and in veterinary, medical and wildlife parasitology have access to the necessary specimens and database to conduct studies on the identification, classification and distribution of parasitic helminths and protozoans. The specimens collections, accumulated over 150 years, are an historical baseline and resource for biodiversity research globally. The Collection is the foundation for proactive programs, prediction and prevention with respect to parasites and pathogens that pose risks to the health of animals, humans and the environment. A vision for the USNPC focuses on these issues- Serving society through biodiversity discovery and exploration, systematics, predictive classifications and interactive information systems for parasites that contribute to identification of new and emerging threats to animal health, food safety and the environment.

The USNPC serves a diverse and global constituency providing curation and access to specimens and databases that drive parasitological research. Combined resources of the USNPC its substantial sister-collections, including the Harold W. Manter Laboratory (University of Nebraska State Museum), the US National Tick Collection (Georgia Southern University), the Canadian Museum of Nature and other smaller taxonomically focused institutional facilities form the primary infrastructure for systematics, taxonomy and biodiversity of metazoan and protozoan parasites in North America. In the current environment we have an opportunity to formulate policy and seek synergistic interfaces within this community of systematics collections to further a broad goal of contributing to a comprehensive knowledge of parasite biodiversity at local, regional and global scales.

Collections as Information Systems, the Future of the USNPC:

Components of a parasitological information system should include specimens-based biodiversity inventories, comprehensive species lists, validation of morphological information, summaries of key phylogenetically diagnostic characters, and total evidence systems incorporating morphological, molecular and genomic data. Development of integrated information systems linking parasite, host and geographic (geo-referenced) data and development of applications for geographic information systems (GIS) is another goal. In this context, specimen-based data can serve as historical or temporal baselines and archives for understanding the influence of environmental change or human intervention on the distribution of parasites and pathogens. Interactive information systems linking diagnostic keys with phylogenetic and epidemiological and biological information for access on the WWW are also central to this concept. In essence the logical course for growth and relevancy of parasite collections is in building the infrastructure for biodiversity bioinformatics with museum staff serving as "curators of information" where a series of interrelated data frameworks within and among museums collectively summarize our base of knowledge in a synergistic manner .

Biodiversity informatics represents a essential contribution through formulation of relational databases, and development of interactive information systems that represent the next step in managing and disseminating parasitological data derived from specimens-based collections. At a general level we can formulate and contribute to a new paradigm for parasite collections as information systems where we build a world of distributed databases linking specimens-based collections. Parasites thus become a window on the world revealing facets of biocomplexity, and further, become resources for documenting biodiversity as a general reference system for the dynamics of intricate biological associations.

The Challenge for Parasite Systematics:

Systematists are purveyors of basic information about species and it is the systematics community that collectively creates the foundations for biodiversity informatics. Systematists hold and codify their special knowledge in the form of species names that represent the physical and ecological characteristics of known organisms which are the essential elements of genealogical reference systems. Systematics also is the framework for comparative studies in basic and applied biology. In parasitology, systematics research is the predictive foundation for recognizing emergent and invasive species, documenting patterns of distribution for pathogens and disease, applied epidemiology, and successful intervention either through management or the use of therapeutic approaches. Further, accurate morphological characterization of parasites and phylogenetic frameworks are critical for the reliability of any capabilities for molecular diagnostics and comparative genomics. In a broader context, parasites are critically important as (1.) ecological and trophic indicators; (2.) historical indicators of phylogeny, ecology and biogeography; (3.) contemporary and historical probes for biodiversity research; and (4.) model systems to explore a range of theoretical issues in evolutionary biology, and ecosystem/community structure based on comparative approaches. Simply, in the absence of systematics, parasitology and biological science in general could not proceed.

Biodiversity as a Foundation:

There is nothing more fundamental than a comprehensive understanding of parasite biodiversity, including accurate taxonomy and species identity, evolutionary relationships, geographic distribution and host associations. Parasites satisfy the primary criteria for recognition of priority taxa to be included in survey and inventory. To reiterate these include: (1.) taxa that are intrinsically important to humans; (2.) taxa that are intrinsically important to ecosystems that humans want to preserve; (3.) taxa that provide efficient means of learning something of importance; (4.) taxa that are geographically widespread; and (5.) taxa that provide an opportunity for international networking. Parasites are admirably suited for inclusion in basic survey and inventory of other vertebrate and invertebrate taxa, and collectively provide substantially greater information than that derived from the study of free-living organisms alone, and concurrently continue to have substantial socioeconomic impacts on a global scale.

Incomplete documentation of the biodiversity of the global parasite fauna, from the level of species to populations, continues to hamper the development of relevant control measures, and parasites continue to exert significant repercussions for science and society. Accurate survey and inventory is critical with respect to recognizing the potential emergence of pathogens, and interactions between parasite faunas circulating in domestic and sylvatic hosts, and at the interface of agricultural or managed and wild ecosystems. Globalization of the economy indicates that narrow regional approaches to documentation of diversity for parasites and pathogens are no longer supportable or viable. Translocation and introduction of parasites continue as factors determining the continental and global distribution of pathogens and further emphasize the importance of systematics and taxonomy in providing a predictive framework for identification, documentation, and subsequent surveillance and monitoring. These issues again emphasize the importance of collections which serve as the foundations for inventories of the worlds biota, and reenforce the significance of development of our specimens-based resources as primary information systems for biodiversity.

At a more fundamental level- parasites are the integrative core of biodiversity survey and inventory. Parasites yield insights into the origins and continuity of biotas, and the historical, phylogenetic, ecological and biogeographic and temporal connectivity across and within ecosystems (the linkage of macro and microevolutionary processes, and temporal and geographic scale). Parasites are critical in developing a synoptic understanding of the history and structure of the biosphere. Substantial contributions by parasitological research to biodiversity inventories extend from the accretion of novel information from standard surveys established over the past 200 years, to sophisticated research programs for systematics, ecology, biogeography and evolutionary biology, based on both organismal and molecular approaches.

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