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State and Future of the Collections
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Background Documents: Major Issues

Since their origins, the world heritage collections held by ARS have historically served a broad constituency both within and external to agriculture (see Collections Infrastructure). ARS collections have been the critical resources for all aspects of systematics research in entomology, mycology, nematology and parasitology in North American and globally. These collections serve a proper federal role enabling other Federal agencies, e.g., APHIS, FSIS, NOAA, NMFS, USFWS, BRD, State agencies, NGO's, and an international community to do their work. Research is enabled by continual accumulation of new specimens, curation and maintenance, identification, databasing, and information development and dissemination.

ARS collections are challenged to effectively deal with rapidly expanding sources of new acquisitions. With decline in global infrastructure for collections, those of the ARS are now the major repositories for many disciplines. Curation, specimen maintenance either for preserved or frozen materials, and first-level databasing are labor intensive activities. Curatorial services have already been significantly impacted due to:

  1. burgeoning development of global inventory activities with large series of specimens
  2. donation of large and orphaned collections from the private and academic sector
  3. growing dependency in the private, academic and government sector for collections based information

Many materials and specimens in these older historical collections are now an irreplaceable source of biodiversity information and cannot ever again be collected due to international convention, habitat loss, expense and logistics. There is a heightened sense of urgency and responsibility with respect to the role of ARS collections in maintaining this global legacy for future generations.

Beyond physical specimens, it is not enough to simply hold and maintain specimens in static repositories. Rather the information contained in unique specimens represents the complex biosphere that is significant both for agriculture and for society. At present the personnel and fiscal resources are lacking to fulfill the broad missions of a modern collection. In our federal role, do we have an obligation to disseminate the information content of collections to a broad-based user community? Such an approach is consistent with the current mandate of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Global Taxonomy Initiative (GTI) which seeks to improve taxonomic knowledge and capacity to further country needs and activities for conservation, sustainable use, and equitable sharing of benefits and knowledge of biodiversity.

Components of an information system include specimens-based biodiversity inventories, comprehensive species lists, validation of morphological information, and summaries of diagnostic characters, incorporating morphological, molecular and genomic data. Development of integrated information systems linking complex biological data (e.g., hosts, symbionts, parasites, pests and pathogens) 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 distributions of plants and animals. Interactive information systems linking diagnostic keys with phylogenetic and epidemiological and biological information for access on the WWW are also central to this concept. Biodiversity informatics represents an essential contribution through formulation of relational databases, and development of interactive information systems that represent the next step in managing and disseminating data derived from specimens-based collections.

The 3 synergistic pillars of an active and vital systematics collection are represented by

  1. research, including accumulation and identification of components of global diversity
  2. curation and maintenance of specimens for future generations
  3. development, interpretation and dissemination of information
The relevancy of ARS collections is readily apparent, but a new model is necessary for constituent collections to respond to ever increasing demands of the agricultural and global communities. Synoptic collections with world-wide scope and depth are necessary for reliable comparative studies that may have substantial regulatory and economic consequences, and which concurrently serve a highly diversified base of national and global stakeholders.