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Forum - Improving on Linnaeus

The science of systematics is the branch of biology that seeks to document life's diversity.

Systematics organize the world's plant and animal organisms by scientific names arranged in hierarchical order, based on relationships among species. Such classification represents what we know about living or extinct organisms and helps predict species behavior.

Progress in systematics depends on accumulating knowledge about millions of species and organizing it efficiently for effective retrieval and use.

Traditionally, this has been done through printed media like monographs, guides, and keys. Also, hundreds of millions of specimens and associated data are stored in systematic collections around the world.

Today's modern, high-speed information processing technologies and the creation of relational databases now allow information about species to be extracted from these scattered resources in any combination to meet a defined need.

When integrated with information in other databases, this knowledge provides new insights into the organization of life on Earth.

Moreover, these electronic databases save scarce financial resources by making the information more widely available than ever before. Users can now identify many organisms themselves, freeing systematists to conduct research.

For example, to help users of systematic data distinguish good fungi from the bad, the ARS Systematic Botany and Mycology Laboratory has developed a large database of fungi worldwide. It serves as the basis for developing expert systems to identify them.

"The world database includes about 150,000 host-fungus records from outside the United States and is updated weekly," says ARS mycologist David F. Farr, who administers the system.

It also contains an account of each fungus, its hosts, and its geographic distribution and documentation, as well as other useful information.

A second user-friendly database includes information from the book Fungi on Plants and Flam Products in the United States by Farr and others. This database contains reports from over 4.000 literature sources, while emphasizing reports of fungi on U.S. hosts.

These reports are of immediate interest to USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) quarantine officials, whose mission it is to prevent the introduction of exotic diseases and pests.

In addition, more than 1 million specimens in the U.S. National Fungus Collections are currently being computerized as part of these databases.

"We've entered label data from about 600,000 specimens, including the rusts, smuts, polypores, and asexual fungi. We're now working on the ascomycetes," says Farr.

This entire system is important not only for providing identifications of agriculturally important fungi, hut also for evaluating any risks they might pose.

For example, to identify host-specific parasites like rusts and smuts that could devastate a specific host crop, one can readily select all of the fungal species on one particular host, note their geographic distribution, work with the descriptive literature, study representative specimens, and come up with a reliable identification.

In developing and setting up the system, Farr has made the information available to all on-line users—including mycologists and plant pathologists worldwide, as well as extension agents and APHIS identifiers and plant quarantine experts.

"These databases give us immediate access to the latest scientific data on fungi on plants and plant products in the world. It is one of the first resources that we depend on when identifying fungi and making decisions about entry of commodities into the States," says APHIS mycologist Mary Palm, who works at the Systematic Botany and Mycology lab.

"Previously, this information was scattered and difficult—or impossible—to obtain. Now, with a single source of systematic information, identifications can be made more rapidly and more knowledgeably.

"It has allowed the importation of certain plant products that had previously been prohibited entry because of the lack of knowledge about the organisms in the United Stales. The information has also helped open markets for U.S. exports."

The system, which took several years to develop, has been available for 2 years and can be accessed free of charge at any time via the Internet (

According to Farr, about 300 users have logged onto the database over the last 3 months. Plans are to expand the system to include all known fungi occurring on plants worldwide and to add black-and-while illustrations (eventually color) so users can compare pictures of fungi.

"By better managing species information, we can make it usable in different ways than ever before. And the new methods do a better job of classification than the Swedish father of modern taxonomy, Carl von Linne [Latinized as Linnaeus] ever envisioned," says Farr.

Hank Becker
ARS Information Staff


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