Leveraging biodiversity science infrastructure in the COVID-19 era

The BioScience Talks podcast features discussions of topical issues related to the biological sciences.

The pandemic resulting from SARS-CoV-2 has had profound impacts on the conduct of scientific research and education: A large proportion of field research has ground to a halt, and research and science education were forced to move online. In light of these developments, the nation's biodiversity infrastructure--natural history collections housed in museums, herbaria, universities, and colleges, among other locations, and often available digitally--are ready to play an even larger role in enabling important scientific discoveries. Further, collections may also be instrumental in preventing or mitigating future infectious outbreaks.
These developments are highlighted in two BioScience articles published today, both of which call for greater collaboration between the biodiversity collections community and other fields of study. In an Editorial, "Human Health, Interagency Coordination, and the Need for Biodiversity Data", Jennifer M. Zaspel and colleagues note that "massive advances in infrastructure, digitization, and organization of physical specimens and their associated data have transformed their use to address global societal challenges." To build on these successes, the authors argue for greater interagency cooperation and support for the "infrastructure, coordination, and management of biodiversity data."
In a concurrently published Viewpoint, "Integrating Biodiversity Infrastructure into Pathogen Discovery and Mitigation of Emerging Infectious Diseases" Joseph A. Cook and colleagues elaborate the ways in which biodiversity science is a powerful tool for identifying future threats to human well-being. "At its core," the authors write, "the COVID-19 pandemic is a consequence of our fundamental ignorance of our planet's natural ecosystems and the effects of our encroachment on them." If properly supported, they argue, the world's natural history collections, which house 3 billion-plus specimens, can be a powerful tool for combating this ignorance. Such an effort will require new and large-scale collaboration with the biomedical community, report the authors. At present, they say, such efforts are hampered because "these communities are only vaguely aware of each other's resources, despite obvious benefits for both basic and clinical research."
On a recent episode of BioScience Talks, several of the authors of these publications were joined by representatives from the BLUE (Biodiversity Literacy in Undergraduate Education) project and BCEENET (Biological Collections in Ecology and Evolution Network), two efforts that promote student learning via digitized specimens. The conversation ranged from today's publications to the use of collections as an educational tool, with a particular focus on working with digitized specimens in remote-learning environments.
These discussions amplify the call for new investments in research and education that were recently outlined in the Extended Specimen Network--a community-informed strategic vision for new investments in biodiversity science and education.

American Institute of Biological Sciences