In California, a scientist urgently needs a rare plant for DNA sequencing. In Paris, another is running out of time to find an endangered orchid. In Cambridge, CUBG’s Curator, Dr Sam Brockington has a plan…
It’s April 2020, the nation is in COVID-19 lockdown and the Botanic Garden is unseen by the public, leaves are bursting out of buds and flowers unleashing a riot of colour. It’s a curator’s worst nightmare – in a normal year, CUBG welcomes over 300,000 visitors. Suddenly it’s off-limits (although we’ve since reopened).
“It was really painful to close the gates, especially in spring” Sam says. “We had to make the best of a terrible situation. The pandemic has supercharged our efforts to open access to our collections in every way we can. We were making strides before but it feels even more urgent now.”
The Garden, which reopened in June, occupies over 40 acres and nurtures some 14,000 living accessions representing over 8,000 species. They include many of the world’s most iconic and endangered trees and plants. But until now, finding out precisely what the Garden held required some digging, or at least some phone calls and emails.
Now researchers, educators, conservationists, professional horticulturalists and the general public can access all of this information for free and at the click of a button using CUBG’s new Living Collections Portal.
“This was one of our lockdown projects,” says Sam, a University lecturer in plant sciences as well as the Garden’s Curator. “It kept me and my team very busy, and gave us something to work towards, amidst all the madness.”
While other botanic gardens around the world have developed collection portals of this kind, Cambridge’s is unusual in allowing exceptional data access and by enabling certain users to directly request material for research purposes.
Official representatives of botanic gardens, universities and scientific institutions can now use the portal to order dried plant materials from which they can extract DNA, fresh frozen material and seeds, as well as photos and further information.
The portal was developed in collaboration with local company Studio24, and feeds from CUBG’s own database, enables users to search by species name, by a variety of higher taxonomic ranks, by global conservation status, by provenance, and by accession number. You can also filter to remove cultivar and hybrid species, and so constrain your search to biological species only.
Supporting world-class research is central to the vision laid out by the Garden’s Director, Professor Beverley Glover.
This is a big step for us. We’re never going to be the biggest collection in the world, but we’re determined to be the most accessible and facilitate as much research as possible.
From cagey to co-operative
Historically, botanic gardens have tended to be cagey about what they hold, Sam admits.
“That was partly because they were competitive and didn’t want to disclose all their acquisition methods, which weren’t always ethical. Now we’re in a more enlightened phase in which gardens co-operate in a network. There is a very strong culture of sharing and a lot of our common objectives require awareness of what we all hold.”
This awareness is particularly urgent when trying to save plants threatened by extinction. “Knowing that you are the only garden that holds a particular plant, or locating that lone guardian quickly, or understanding the combined value of different collections, is becoming more important every day,” Sam says.
Over the past five years, the curatorial team has been working hard to get samples and information into the hands of international researchers as quickly as possible. “We’ve already quadrupled the number of research requests we process”, Brockington says. “The portal should accelerate that progress. We want it to be as easy as ordering from Amazon.”
The portal also aims to serve passionate gardeners, enabling them to check that the Garden holds particular plants of interest ahead of a visit, or for their own research. In subsequent phases, the team hopes to link users from their search hits to a map so they can see precisely where the plant or tree is located in the garden.
Planning for the future
The portal sprouts from CUBG’s first ‘Living Collections Strategy’, developed by Sam, Beverley Glover and colleagues. This looks forward from 2020 to ask how they can best safeguard the world’s plant diversity within the wider global botanic garden network. The strategy also seeks to drive excellence in research and teaching to help tackle some of our most urgent challenges: climate change, food security and the production of medicines.
The strategy puts plant diversity and wild-collected plant material at the top of CUBG’s agenda, as they believe this is crucial to supporting world-class research.
By carefully assessing what the entire global network of botanic gardens are achieving, they want to best position CUBG to collaborate within that network, but also to differentiate the Garden and make its collections unique.
Brockington says: “Having open access to strategically-planned collections of rare, wild and diverse plant material will help scientists better understand how plants thrive and survive. Their work, and our work, has never been more critical or urgent.”
By Tom Almeroth-Williams.
Read the original article here.