By Salvatore Salamone
April 15, 2003 | To help biologists build their own plant specimen databases and quickly share data with other researchers in the international plant community, The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) offers Virtual Herbarium Express, a free software tool.
“Virtual Herbarium Express will be able to make information on newly collected specimens available more expediently,” says Barbara Thiers, director of the NYBG’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium. She says the NYBG felt that “[furthering the] understanding of plants and their role in human affairs is decreasing the time between field research and scientific analysis.”
When using Virtual Herbarium Express, a biologist is presented with a form containing more than 75 fields used to describe a plant specimen. These include information about where the plant was collected, where the specimen is stored, who collected it, a detailed description ofthe plant and its habitat, which researchers have studied the plant species in the past, and what articles have already been published about it. The fields are searchable once the data are entered. Digital photos can also be attached to each record.
Also included in the software package are what the NYBG calls authority files, which ensure that common nomenclature is used when species, researchers, and publications are entered into the database.
Biologists who cannot publish their specimen data as a searchable database can upload their Virtual Herbarium Express collections to the NYBG, which will host the data as a separate catalog within the organization’s own online collection, called the Virtual Herbarium. The NYBG’s Virtual Herbarium contains information on more than 700,000 plants and is adding from 80,000 to 100,000 new entries to the database each year.
Exploiting the Database
The need for a tool like the Virtual Herbarium Express is just starting to emerge. In the past, research focused on only physical traits of plants, which is now being combined with genetic analysis.
“Morphological characteristics have been the major criteria for species distinction [for algae] of the genus Dunaliella,” said Juergen Polle, a researcher at Brooklyn College, The City University of New York, during a recent plant molecular biology symposium at the NYBG. “Only recently, molecular and genetic analysis [of the algae] has been used to classify species of the genus.”
In Polle’s case, his research looks at one specific gene (18s rDNA) and two sequence regions (internal transcribed spacer 1 and 2, also known as ITS1 and ITS2) to conduct phylogenetic analysis, which examines the evolution of genetically related groups. This further delineates Dunaliella species and subspecies from each other.
Thiers believes Virtual Herbarium Express could play an important role as more plant biology research links physical plant traits with genetic analysis of plants. “If you are a molecular biologist looking at a plant with a particular characteristic, you likely will want to know if there are different variants of that plant in other parts of the world,” she says.
For example, plants with a particular expressed gene in common may share a physical trait, such as color, shape, leaves curling up or down, and so on. If so, it would be practical to have a way to search for other variants of that plant that have common physical characteristics.
The Virtual Herbarium Express is available for free from the NYBG’s Web site at www.nybg.org/bsci/vh/.