USU-CEU botanist Jerry Anderson, right, looks over plant specimens to be photographed.
Since the Italian Renaissance, botanists have been collecting and cataloging plants. That adds up to a lot a plants, and just how many of them are on file is a big number. Brigham Young University, in a little more than one century, has amassed about 600,000 specimens. Utah State University has about half that. Other big schools here and abroad have similar numbers.
While that is a huge amount of stored knowledge, there is an equally huge drawback: "To find out what is available, you have to go directly to the herbarium," explained USU botanist Mary Barkworth. She was at the USU-CEU campus last week taking part in a briefing on a new program intended to enhance national and global sharing of scientific data.
It's called HerbACE, a database program designed by BYU botanist Lee Johnson. It will enable researchers to log their information, along with photographs for storage and access on the Internet.
The point of all this, according to Barkworth, is that the understanding of plants depends on widespread, long-term research. It is not enough just to go out into the field and bring back a plant. Thorough research depends on providing the precise geographic location, exact date and other data that will pinpoint the conditions in which each specimen is found.
Right now, the federal government is interested in this move into "bio-informatics." Using this kind of comprehensive data, it is possible to spot trends in plant growth that may be caused by climate change. It could also track the spread of disease or disease resistance in plants.
Questions to be answered over the long term might include any changes in dates that certain plants flower, or elevations where they are found or not found, or any changes in structure over time.
The other big advantage of the database program, Barkworth explained, is that it makes students better researchers. Since they have to fill in every field of each record, it makes them more aware of the necessity for collecting all the information.
The streamlining and spreading of information internationally is necessary to face what Barkworth called the "grand challenges" in the environment. She also said that the field of botany is expanding, not only in the number of jobs available but in the locations.
"We will have to go beyond the big universities and big herbaria," she said, which means including the smaller institutions such as USU-CEU which are so widespread that they will be in positions to research and record many locations.