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Nightshades: the paradoxical plants

3 Posts tagged with the database tag
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Human beings depend upon a handful of flowering plants for 80% of their caloric intake - this in spite of the estimated approximately 400,000 species of flowering plants! In the face of discussions and concerns about global food security, agriculture's attention is turning to the wild species that are related to these staple crops for ideas about how to face massive environmental change.

 

For the past few days, I have been at a meeting convened by the Global Crop Diversity Trust (http://www.croptrust.org/) and funded by a variety of organisations to discuss the challenges and opportunities wild relatives of crops represent. Now, my take on these plants is very firmly from the biodiversity end of the spectrum - and is pretty narrowly focused on Solanaceae, so these few days have been a real learning experience! The group includes people working on rice, maize and wheat, but also apples, barley, amaranthus, soybean, peanut - you name it, the crop is there!  The place is also fantastic - the Asilomar Conference Center on the Monterey peninsula in central California - what better place to come together and leave day-to-day cares behind to really talk about issues.

 

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The view of the Pacific Ocean (very cold!!) from Asilomar State Park

 

What has surprised me is the degree to which the world of germplasm banks (sort of museums for the seed and plant collections used by plant breeders to improve our crop plants) is parallel to, but rarely intersecting with, my more familiar museum world. Databases are an issue, the avalanche of data coming from genomic approaches .... we all have these same challenges! We could do a lot to help one another, and to see how the challenges we face are actually the same at their core, with subtle differences depending on the specific circumstances.

 

I feel incredibly privledged to have been invited to be a part of this group - and realise how relevant the data we hold in our rich and global collections can be used to help other communities ....  however distant those might be.

 

Solanaceae - my nightshades - have as members many important vegetable crops - tomato, potato, pepper, eggplant (aubergine).... vegetables are often left out of the equation in terms of food security, where focus is on the big grain crops that provide our carbohydrates. But vegetables are key to a balanced diet - vitamins and nutrients are key to human health.  Vegetablse are also locally adapted and consumed, providing a unique opportunity for linking local and global issues, and for linking food prduction to biodiversity issues.

 

My brain is buzzing with new ideas and possible new projects for the future....  at museums we often get bogged down in the enormity of our task, describing wild diversity and enablign its conservation, such that the sheer massive usefulness of the informationfrom our collections we hold and curate for future generations to biology beyond the museum walls can slip into the background. Getting out into communities very different from our own can be scary (lots of words I don't know were bandied about these few days!!) but it is critical for realising the role the Museum can play - its big, and a bit frightening, and very different - but oh so exciting!.

 

Getting out is GOOD!!

 

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Sunset over the Pacific.....

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Plant Challenge Day 1 from North London

 

After the wowser event on Friday night (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-19020830) that even had a botanical motif at the end - data cleaning began early on Saturday morning.......

 

My task is to check names of people in the database, eliminate duplicates and correct spellings, and to fill in fields like first name and full name. Sounds easy.......

 

I made it through the letter A, well almost. Checking the identity of collectors of plants involves seeing where they were when - for example two Stephen Allens - one from the 1890s and one from the 1970s, could exist, so just assuming they are the same is dangerous. Once I had determined people were indeed different, I cross-checked with numerous external web databases ( like that at Harvard http://kiki.huh.harvard.edu/databases/publication_index.html, or the one in JStor Plant Science http://plants.jstor.org/) to double check first names, initials and dates.

 

Along the way I correct diacritical marks (accents) in non-English surnames - it is easy when entering data to leave off the accent in a name like Fernández - the computer thinks A. Fernandez and A. Fernández are different people - it is only a machine after all - when in fact they are one and the same. So the collections attributed to each need to be merged.

 

All this takes time, but in the end is worth it. I also managed to find a few plant name mysteries while dealing with people - all tiny little things that once solved put another puzzle piece in place for our eventual documentation of the diversity of Solanum. Even though my eyes go squiffy from staring at the screen it is great to feel like things are getting cleaned up - and it just reminds me how much I really do like these plants - they are great!

 

We are also getting ready to go to a meeting in France with some eggplant (aubergines for we Brits) breeders - so I have also been thinking about how to present our results on the taxonomy of African Solanum (done by Maria Vorontsova - see her previous blogs on collecting in Africa http://www.nhm.ac.uk/natureplus/blogs/wildspiny/tags/africa?fromGateway=true) in the most user-friendly way - a different sort of challenge!

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Plant Challenge - Let's begin!

Posted by Tiina Jul 23, 2012

A certain major sporting event will get under way this Friday and we'll be having our own celebration by launching our own Plant Challenge!

 

Here at the Solanaceae team we will be writing daily blogs about our activities. We have set ourselves a goal – a challenging goal we hope to achieve but in order to do so we might need a bit of luck and lots of hard work! The great big goal is to clean and update our ever growing BRAHMS database which holds the data needed for running the great Solanaceae Source website soon to be updated to Scratch pad 2. This is not a small task by any means: the database currently includes 60,005 collection events, 72,301 individual specimen entries, 16,759 collectors names, 13,565 species names, 19,318 gazetteer entries, and 71,345 species determination records!

 

Between Friday 27 July and Friday 10 August you can follow up on our progress and hear how our efforts are going. Our Team consists of three people: Mamen (Maria Peña Chocarro), Sandy, and Tiina. Mamen will be in charge of geography, Sandy is focusing on cleaning collectors, nomenclature, and literature, and Tiina is taking on data entry and unifying data records. Despite months of hard and strenuous training, the contestants are feeling nervous yet incredibly excited! One thing is for sure - the journey will be full of surprises, as you never know what one finds inside the big matrix!!!

 

The team will use “divide and conquer” strategy to tackle the mammoth task. Whilst Mamen and Sandy will stay at the project headquarters in London, Tiina will be sent to Edinburgh to the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh to establish a remote base for the operations. The equipment for the task will include three laptops, three internet connections, and three desks. Coordination of research will be done through email and phones.

 

Whether you are a scientist or a keen natural historian, join us in your efforts in Plant Challenge! Send your comments to our blog, with links to your own planty challenge feat!

 

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