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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

UC Davis biodiversity collections support research, educate public

Some of the collections have recently been featured by the university during 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 R.M. Bohart Museum of Entomology houses more than 7 million insects, arachnids and crustaceans. Visitors to the museum — which is open to the public — are greeted by informational hallway displays in plastic cases and colorful banners with art showcasing biodiversity.

Inside the room are live tarantulas, stick bugs and more, along with hundreds of trays of mounted specimens carefully organized in row after row 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, the California Raptor Center, the Botanical Conservatory, the Phaff Yeast Culture Collection and many more. 

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

“It’s because of how science is done,” Boundy-Mills said. “We make a discovery, and we have to be able to repeat that and prove that it was true. Science is built by building upon previous discoveries. And one of the most important things that biodiversity collections are involved in is documenting what species has been found where.”

The collections on campus primarily support the research community, as well as centering on teaching and outreach. Lynn Kimsey, a professor of entomology and the 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, with the exception of the very small number of large bodied, showy things, you can’t field-identify them. 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 yeasts in her collection are currently being used for research projects. 

“There are yeasts used for bread and wine and cheese, but there are others that will turn excess sugar into oil, and store that oil inside the cell,” Boundy-Mills said during the UC Davis Live. “That 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 be a substitute for fat in plant-based meats.”

Kimsey said that along with supporting research initiatives, the Bohart Museum also has a goal of promoting education. 

“We provide specimens or tours,” Kimsey said. “And we also do tours for school grounds, libraries, state county fairs, stuff like that. And finally, we serve as an information source; 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 it’s really not dangerous.” 

Finally, some of the collections integrate public outreach into their mission.

“We have the petting zoo,” said Kimsey, gesturing toward a rack full of cages holding tarantulas. “That’s what I call it, anyways. We also have carnivorous plants, stick bugs and we have displays in the hall.” 

Ernesto Sandoval, the manager of the UC Davis Botanical Conservatory, talked during the UC Davis Live about some of the public’s favorite plants in the collection.

“We have a really large diversity of succulents that are recognized across the world, and then our carnivorous plants,” Sandoval said. “Both are really popular for the visitors. In all our collections, we sort of have those ambassador species that bring in and attract people to look at the greater diversity of plants that we have.” 

Kimsey described some of the challenges that can come along with outreach.

“It’s hard, because historically, people have been put in charge of these collections to protect them from people,” Kimsey said. “And now we’re trying to turn that on its head because what I find is that people we have coming in here, you don’t have to protect anything from them, they’re very respectful. The public pays for this, and they deserve to make as much use of it as possible.” 

Boundy-Mills talked about another challenge that the Phaff Collection faces in terms of portraying their importance to the community. 

“We don’t have beautiful butterflies, we don’t have the public come look at our freezer full of yeasts,” Boundy-Mills said. “I spend hours and hours updating each field in the database, counting yeasts, inventory, data entry, and it doesn’t look very glamorous when it’s being done. But finding new species that could potentially help solve the big problems the world is facing, it really makes it all worth it.” 

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

“Even though we’re experts in insect identification, we’re only capable, each of us, of doing maybe 2,000 species in our groups of specialization,” Kimsey said. “That doesn’t get you close to 100,000. I just don’t think we know that much. There are so many groups that no one is working on right now.”

Boundy-Mills took over the collection in 2001 after Herman Phaff died. According to Boundy-Mills, even after he officially retired he continued to come to work every day until he was 88 years old, teaching Boundy-Mills about the collection and the organizational system he had maintained. 

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

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

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

Written by: Sonora Slater — science@theaggie.org 



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