RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
You've probably gone to a natural history museum at some point in your life and seen the stuff on display. But that's a tiny fraction of what scientists have stashed away, everything from preserved fish or dried plants to vials of microbes. They are all chilling in a freezer. So caretakers of all these treasures have been working to bring them into the digital age so scientists can know what's available for study. Here's NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Scientists like to collect things, plants, insects, fish, birds, yeast, bacteria, mammals. More than a billion biological specimens are stored in museums and universities and other places across the United States. And Randy Singer says each one is like a time capsule.
RANDY SINGER: Like, I can go into a shelf, grab a jar off the shelf and look at a river in someplace in Southeast Asia in the 1800s.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Singer is in charge of the fish collection at the University of Michigan's Museum of Zoology. It has over 3 million preserved fish. He says today's lab tools can pull an amazing amount of information out of each one.
SINGER: I can know exactly what the fishes were eating. I can know about the chemical composition of the water they lived in.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Really, the history of life on Earth is physically stored in biological collections. Despite all this, some see them as old-fashioned, quaint, even irrelevant.
SINGER: There are probably a lot of instances where these really small collections that aren't really well-known or studied or valued might just get tossed in the dumpster.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And it's not just small collections that get threatened. A few years ago, the University of Louisiana, Monroe, wanted to renovate an old sports stadium. So it decided to kick out a collection that had been temporarily housed in the stadium's building, millions of fish, half a million dried plants.
TIANA REHMAN: I think the announcement was made in something like March that the collection would need to find a new home. And they wanted it gone by July or else.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Tianna Rehman works at the Botanical Research Institute of Texas, which adopted the plant specimens. They were in more than 300 closet-sized metal cabinets that had to be hauled out. She says all that work was worth it to save them.
REHMAN: These are irreplaceable. They each represent a moment in time and space that lets us, you know, evaluate where we've been and make predictions about where we might go in terms of climate change, in terms of many things that we can't even imagine.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: For that to happen, though, scientists have to know what specimens are out there awaiting study. In 2011, the National Science Foundation started giving out grants in a push to get the nation's biological collections online. Reed Beaman at NSF says the agency has been helping curators around the country put records and even photographs of specimens into a portal called iDigBio.
REED BEAMAN: There have been, I think, about 130 million specimens digitized and made available through iDigBio. That's still not the whole picture. So there's a lot to do still.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: As their original 10-year plan is coming to a close, the NSF recently sought advice on what to do next. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine convened a panel, which has made some recommendations. One of them is simple. Create a registry of all collections in the country. Barbara Thiers is with the New York Botanical Garden. She says there's already some self-reported partial lists.
BARBARA THIERS: But we know that there are many, many collections that exist that we know nothing about. And that's really one of the big challenges we face.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Another challenge is figuring out how to get new kinds of information linked to specimens, like DNA data or environmental measurements or 3D images. Scott Edwards is the ornithology curator at Harvard University's natural history museum.
SCOTT EDWARDS: You know, iDigBio right now doesn't have a lot of information for birds mostly because we haven't developed ways to really record the 3D structure of a bird specimen and digitize that in a way that's useful.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Although, one project has already been working to scan thousands of animal specimens to reveal the structure of their internal organs. The expert panel advised that the government should set up a permanent action center to coordinate all the work needed to keep biological collections going. And they urged officials to think not just about what's been collected already, but also what might be collected in the future. Kyria Boundy-Mills is a curator at a yeast collection at the University of California, Davis.
KYRIA BOUNDY-MILLS: When a researcher gets a grant, a federal grant that will involve collecting specimens or generating specimens, that's the time that they should be thinking about, what is the future of those specimens?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: In order to make sure they'll actually have a future. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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