"It used to be that there was a limited body of knowledge of plant and animal specimens—a scientist could read all the books and papers. Now, our body of knowledge is so vast, we need the help of machines."
The shape of things to come: Morphology database going global
A Florida State University researcher who specializes in the evolutionary history of wasps is now creating a buzz about a new way for scientists to store, share and study plant and animal images.
Dr. Fredrik Ronquist
Fredrik Ronquist, a professor in the School of Computational Sciences, is one of the founders of MorphBank, an international Web database that contains thousands of high-resolution photographs and other images of plant and animal specimens. Now he is leading an interdisciplinary team of FSU scientists to expand the database, thanks to a $2.25 million grant from the National Science Foundation.
"It used to be that there was a limited body of knowledge of plant and animal specimens—a scientist could read all the books and papers," Ronquist said. "Now, our body of knowledge is so vast, we need the help of machines."
Researchers from across the globe can deposit images documenting animal or plant specimens in MorphBank and retrieve images deposited by their colleagues. The NSF grant will allow the FSU team to develop commercial quality software to make the system more user friendly and offer more advanced search techniques, according to project manager David Gaitros of the computer science department. Scientists also will be able to add comments to the images and search comments made by other scientists—a quick and efficient way to communicate research results.
"We're hoping to achieve a change in the way scientists work when they do research," Ronquist said. "That's one of the biggest challenges—changing habits. We need to convince scientists that this is a better way of working with their material and presenting their research. It's a matter of having a system that works well with lots of interesting images. That will go a long way to change people's attitudes."
Because journals often do not publish all the images that illustrate an article, researchers now must go to a museum or depository to view the specimens or arrange for a loan. Ronquist envisions a system in which authors would deposit images into MorphBank, and journals could point readers to the database to view them.
Considering that only 1 million of the 10 million species on Earth are known or named, Ronquist said a vast database would be the only way to manage information as more discoveries are made. MorphBank currently contains about 40,000 images and is expected to increase to more than 1 million images in the next few years.
The NSF grant also will provide funds for the FSU team to protect the database by setting up a network of MorphBank "mirrors" around the world. Distributing the images on several machines ensures there are backup copies and can reduce both the amount of disk space on each machine and the cost to any one institution.
Although scientists will be the only ones to have access to the system to deposit, retrieve or comment on items, the system is free and may be viewed by anyone.
"Everyone from kindergartners to the top researchers in the world, when they want to see or examine a specimen, they can go to MorphBank to find it," Gaitros said. "They'll see the image, the organism's scientific name, common name, who found it and where, what publications it has been in and related species. Any and all relevant information we put in MorphBank."
In the future, it may be possible to take a photo of a plant or an animal, send the image to the database and get back a reliable species identification, Gaitros said.
Ronquist was working in Sweden in 1998 when he and insect specialists from the United States and Spain started MorphBank as a way to share the more than 1,000 microscopic photos they had taken in their comprehensive study of a group of parasitic wasps. The name of the database refers to the term morphology, which is the study of the shape and structure of plants and animals.
Ronquist brought the project to FSU in 2003 when he was hired here. Besides Gaitros and him, the team includes Austin Mast and Greg Erickson of biology; Robert van Engelen of computer science; Greg Riccardi, Corinne Jorgensen and Peter Jorgensen of the College of Information; Gordon Erlebacher of mathematics; and Anuj Srivastava of statistics.