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One-Stop Shopping for Federal Scientific Collections

Posted by Damon Thompson, Communications Director, USDA Research, Education and Economics Mission Area in Research and Science
Dec 19, 2016
The USDA Nematode Collection
The USDA Nematode Collection is one of the largest and most valuable in existence. Online listings of more than 38,000 specimens are among dozens of important scientific collections that USDA makes available on the Internet. Photo credit: USDA

Federal agencies act as custodians of hundreds of diverse scientific collections that contain everything from plant and animal specimens, tissues, and DNA to microbes, minerals, and moonrocks. These collections are part of the country’s science infrastructure, and support work in fields that include public health and safety, agriculture, trade, homeland security, medical research, trade, and environmental monitoring.

Agencies have been working to improve access to information about these collections and expand opportunities for their use. Now, through a joint effort between the USDA and Smithsonian Institution, an Interagency Working Group on Scientific Collections (IWGSC) has been cataloging them in a newly established Registry of U.S. Federal Scientific Collections (USFSC) managed by the Smithsonian.

This registry provides unprecedented access to information about more than 125 scientific collections managed by more than 475 Federal institutions. Agencies will continue to add collections to the registry over the coming months. Scores of them are maintained by USDA, while others maintained by other agencies provide access to information that is quite useful to people involved in food and farming issues. Among the collections already listed, those include the following:

The National Animal Germplasm Program Database contains a collection of 885,000 samples from 44,400 animals (livestock, poultry, aquatic species and insects). The collection provides a secure backup of genetic resources in the event of catastrophic events, plus a source of genetic variability readily used by public and private sector to reintroduce genetic variation into specific populations and provide researchers with genomic material for a wide array of experimentation.

USDA’s Soil Sample Archive contains over 212,000 soil samples with associated analytical data and site metadata. It is playing an essential role in developing mid-infrared spectrometry techniques that farmers can use for rapidly identifying the soil properties that guide decisions about irrigation and fertilizer application. It is also used as to develop a method for identifying hydric soils that do not develop the color patterns typically used to identify wetland soils.

The Madison Wood Collection (MADw), located in the U.S. Forest Service’s Laboratory of Wood Anatomy, contains 28,700 wood specimens of which 65 percent are from the Americas. The rest come primarily from Asia and Africa and also from Australia, Europe, and the Pacific Islands. The country with the most specimens is the United States, with 8,300 specimens. The information in this collection is of great value to users of wood and wood products and others who rely on scientific names as a key to reliable information on wood properties.

The USDA Nematode Collection Database is one of the largest and most valuable collections in existence of the microscopic, wormlike animals which include parasites of insects, plants or animals. The database contains over 38,000 species entries from world-wide sources which can be used for taxonomic research and reference purposes. A broad range of data is stored for each specimen, including species, host, origin, collector, date collected and date received.  It also provides data on nematode hosts, occurrence and distribution.

The U.S. National Entomological Collection contains about 450,000 insect specimens online, and includes genetic samples and primary type, specimen, and species inventories. They are part of the more than 33 million taken care of by three government agencies: the Agricultural Research Service Systematic Entomology Laboratory, The Smithsonian Institution, and the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research’s Biosystematics Unit.

Following guidelines developed by the IWGSC, more than a dozen federal departments and agencies have developed policies specifying approaches to improve the management of these and other federal scientific collections to help ensure they will remain viable and be expanded as needed to support future research and agency missions. Completed policies are posted on the IWGSC clearinghouse.

In coming months, agencies will add more collections to the Registry and more agencies will complete their collections policies. The IWGSC also plans to find ways to strengthen the contributions of federal scientific collections to priority areas of national interest, such as emerging infectious diseases, food security, soil health, microbiome research, and open science. It will seek opportunities for greater coordination internationally among institutions that maintain scientific collections. These are among the tasks the IWGSC will continue to pursue as it continues its efforts to maximize the returns from the Federal investment in important scientific collections.

Category/Topic: Research and Science