Well, it was actually several entomologists, and together this group conducted a two-day, BioBlitz-style, sampling of Southern Appalachian terrestrial (living on land) invertebrates for genomic preservation! Read on for details from one of our first GGI collecting expeditions!
I’m Mike Gates, a Research Entomologist working for the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and housed in the National Museum of Natural History. I conduct research on insects of agricultural importance, and our two organizations are partners. More specifically, I focus on taxonomy and systematics of a superfamily of parasitic wasps, called Chalcidoidea. Many of these wasps are used in biological control of insect pests, and are beneficial in agricultural and horticultural systems.
I was recently awarded funds by the Smithsonian’s Global Genome Initiative to take a team down to the Southern Appalachian region of North Carolina to collect terrestrial arthropods into liquid nitrogen. Why? The goal of preservation at super cold temperatures is ultra-high quality, and then making them available for researchers worldwide to use in their genomic-level research. This region was selected due to its floristic diversity which typically equates with insect diversity. The area is known the variety of habitats nearby, from serpentine barrens to coves.
Our team included entomologists specializing in aquatic insects/beetles, true bugs, parasitic wasps, flies, and moths. We were also supported by arachnologist Jonathan Coddington, Director of GGI, and our scientific illustrator Taina Litwak who documented the trip digitally.
We stayed at the Highlands Biological Station, a very well appointed facility with excellent gardens, highlighting the native flora. Our team had a blast, working until 3:00am on more than one occasion. We used nets, traps, and UV lights to collect both aquatic and terrestrial invertebrates. The fun parts of this whole expedition are the experimentation with best practices, since these genomic preservation opportunities are new to us. For example, what is the best way to collect and record information about an organism before putting it into the liquid nitrogen? What is the best way to submerge a specimen into liquid nitrogen? We tried a tea infuser for some of the smaller specimens.
All specimens were identified, placed in barcoded tubes, databased, and dropped into liquid nitrogen for preservation at -196 degrees Celsius. We filled a total of 900 tubes, sampling heavily across insects, but also mollusks, millipedes, and spiders. All our data has been uploaded to the Global Genome Biodiversity Network and is available for researchers to explore. We plan to continue to contribute to the GGI with our future collecting endeavors!
Using a cornstarch "duster" on a spiderweb. Puffing cornstarch on a spiderweb reveals otherwise invisible details of its structure. Highlands, NC. Video by Taina Litwak, USDA.
By Mike Gates, Research Entomologist for the Agricultural Research Service , USDA