UC Davis Biodiversity Collections Support Research and Educate the Public

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Some of the collections were recently featured by the university on Biodiversity Museum Day on March 6 and an episode of UC Davis Live on March 31.

By SONORA SLATER — science@theaggie.org

Hidden behind the UC Davis Physics Building, in the Academic Surge on Crocker Lane, the RM Bohart Museum of Entomology is home to over 7 million insects, arachnids and crustaceans. Visitors to the museum – which is open to the public – are greeted with informative displays in the hallways in plastic cases and colorful banners with artwork showcasing biodiversity.

Inside the room are live tarantulas, stick insects and more, as well as hundreds of mounted specimen trays neatly organized into rows of cabinets.

The Bohart Museum is just one of dozens of biodiversity collections at UC Davis, all of which collect and preserve an enormous diversity of species. Others include the Arboretum, California Raptor Center, Botanical Conservatory, Phaff Yeast Culture Collection and many more.

Kyria Boundy-Mills, curator of the Phaff Yeast Culture Collection, explained during a UC Davis Live showcasing campus biodiversity collections why these collections exist.

“It’s because of the way the science is done,” Boundy-Mills said. “We make a discovery, and we need to be able to repeat it and prove it to be true. Science is built on building on previous discoveries. And one of the most important things that biodiversity collections are involved in is to document what species were found and where.

The on-campus collections primarily support the research community, while focusing on teaching and outreach. Lynn Kimsey, professor of entomology and director of the Bohart Museum, explained how the research community interacts with their collection.

“We’re a repository for research vouchers, and we’re a lending library for genetic sampling as well as for scientists around the world who want to study a particular group of insects,” Kimsey said. “Because the problem with insects is that except for the very small number of large, showy things, you cannot identify them in the field. The only way to know where and when a specimen occurs is to have a physical specimen with that data on it.

Boundy-Mills gave examples of how the yeasts in their collection are currently being used for research projects.

“There are yeasts used for bread, wine, and cheese, but there are others that will turn excess sugar into oil and store that oil inside the cell,” Boundy-said Mills during UC Davis Live. “This oil is very similar to vegetable oil, so if we find the right varieties, it could become a biofuel substitute for petroleum, or it could replace fat in plant-based meats.”

Kimsey said that in addition to supporting research initiatives, the Bohart Museum also aims to promote education.

“We provide specimens or tours,” Kimsey said. “And we also do tours for schoolyards, libraries, county fairs, stuff like that. And finally, we serve as a source of information; if you have any questions about spiders or ticks we can answer them, we can do identifications for people. If someone has a killer spider in their bathtub, we can reassure them, tell them that it’s really not dangerous.

Finally, some collections include public awareness in their mission.

“We have the petting zoo,” Kimsey said, pointing to a rack full of cages containing tarantulas. “That’s what I call it, anyway. We also have carnivorous plants, stick insects and we have displays in the lobby.

Ernesto Sandoval, director of the UC Davis Botanical Conservatory, spoke during UC Davis Live about some of the public favorite plants in the collection.

“We have a very high diversity of succulents that are recognized across the world, and then our carnivorous plants,” Sandoval said. “Both are very popular with visitors. In all of our collections, we kind of have these ambassador species that attract and entice people to look at the greater diversity of plants that we have.

Kimsey described some of the challenges that can come with raising awareness.

“It’s difficult because historically people have been put in charge of these collections to protect them from people,” Kimsey said. “And now we’re trying to reverse that because what I find is the people we have here, you have nothing to protect from them, they’re very respectful. The public pays for it, and they deserve to make the greatest possible use of it.

Boundy-Mills spoke about another challenge the Phaff collection faces in terms of representing its importance to the community.

“We don’t have beautiful butterflies, we don’t invite the public to come and look at our yeast-filled freezer,” Boundy-Mills said. “I spend hours and hours updating every field in the database, counting yeast, inventory, data entry, and it doesn’t look very glamorous when it’s done . But finding new species that could potentially help solve the big problems facing the world is well worth the effort. »

According to Kimsey, the success of these collections truly relies on the experts who dedicate their time and knowledge to them. In California alone, there are about 100,000 species of insects, compared to about 300 species of plants, Kimsey said. The Bohart Museum is home to nearly 8 million species.

“Even though we’re experts at insect identification, we’re only able, each of us, to do maybe 2,000 species in our specialty groups,” Kimsey said. “It doesn’t get you closer to 100,000. I don’t think we know that much. There are so many bands that no one is working on right now.

Boundy-Mills took over the collection in 2001 after Herman Phaff’s death. According to Boundy-Mills, even after he officially retired, he continued to come to work every day until the age of 88, teaching Boundy-Mills about collecting and the system of organization he had maintained. .

“‘This is only possible because generations before us collected, preserved and nurtured these yeasts,’ Boundy-Mills said. “It was lucky that I was there, and I had worked with [Phaff]. If I wasn’t there, it would have been just a room full of test tubes with scribbling spec sheets that no one else understood.

She went on to highlight the growing importance of these biodiversity collections as science and technology develop.

“During the selection process for a research project, we examine yeasts that were collected 30 to 40 years ago for basic research into what yeasts are and how they interact with other organisms. in the environment,” Boundy-Mills said. . “They are now used in all sorts of different ways – medical, agricultural, biofuels […] It makes you think, what are people going to do with these 50 years from now? Probably something I can’t even imagine.

Written by: Sonora Slater — science@theaggie.org

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