Campus News

Identity crisis

Researchers use PEET grants to raise profile of taxonomy in scientific community

Partnerships in Enhancing Expertise in Taxonomy, or PEET, is a special National Science Foundation program intended to raise the profile of taxonomy in the scientific community. Three UGA researchers who have PEET grants talked with Columns about what the grants mean for their research.

Columns: What is the purpose of a PEET grant?

Farmer: As researchers become increasingly specialized in molecular techniques, the scientific community is losing the expertise necessary to actually identify the organisms we study.

Porter: The PEET grant primarily aims at understanding diversity, evolution and the biology of understudied organisms. It also involves training new students.

McHugh: Biologists cannot access scientific literature or publish their research without knowing the names of their creatures.

We want to generate a large body of taxonomic resources and make them accessible on the Web so that researchers everywhere can easily work with these understudied taxa.

Farmer: Also, we hope to set aside some of the misconceptions that people have that systematics is an old-fashioned, archaic science that no longer plays a role in modern biology.

Columns: Why is this kind of ­research important?

McHugh: Precise species identifications are very important in many situations. For instance, in a port like Savannah, if a ship arrives with insects on board, the inspectors need to know whether that ship should be allowed to enter, fumigated or turned away. Unless somebody with taxonomic expertise can look at the insects and say, “There’s no danger at all-let it in,” we cannot know if the insects are going to wipe out the forests of North America.

Porter: When frogs started dying at the Washington Zoo, no one knew what the causal organism was. Fortunately, someone had seen an image that looked like the electron micrograph of the mystery organism. They wrote to one of my collaborators and said, “What is this?” She identified a new organism: frog chytrids, which would not have been discovered without a taxonomist with knowledge about chytrids, their structure and the things that they do.

Farmer: Taxonomy also supports other kinds of research. For example, GenBank, an online database of gene and protein sequences, is organized around species’ names. Right now, most are easily recognizable species, but as we sequence unknown organisms, it becomes extremely problematic to just put a sequence out there and say, “Well, it’s from something, but we don’t know what.” It is a bit like taking random pages out of a book, putting them out there and calling it a library without knowing which books the pages are from. That is where people trained in systematics play an important role, because we can then tie back the gene sequences to the original organisms.

Columns: How has the grant affected your research direction?

Porter: This grant moved a lot of my research into formal, monographic, taxonomic work and allowed me to focus on more phylogenetic analysis using genetic information. When I grew up in biology, there was no evolutionary information available other than speculation on the limited morphology that organisms have.

Farmer: The biggest way it has changed my research is through support for the students. I have been able to attract some very good students to work on these projects.

McHugh: We got the PEET grant to do exactly the type of work that our lab group already was doing. Now, we can do it much better. PEET provides excellent support for students. The graduates and undergraduates who are trained through this project will have had the “Cadillac” of educational experiences.

Columns: Who is involved in your research?

Porter: My grant is a collaboration with colleagues at the University of Alabama and the University of Maine.

McHugh: Between UGA and my collaborators at Brigham Young University, there are two postdoctoral associates, five graduate students at UGA and multiple undergraduates.

Farmer: My lab has a very close relationship with another at Michigan State University. Our PEET-related research has also led to two international collaborations, although these labs are not funded through NSF.

Columns: Why do you think that UGA has so many PEET grants on campus?

Farmer: It has a lot to do with the facilities. PEET projects combine classic morphology with modern molecular techniques. All of our groups are using classical microscopy and gene sequencing.

McHugh: The PEET people here on campus have strong taxonomic backgrounds and good training records. NSF wants to support real taxonomists, not people who are actually doing something else and only dabbling in taxonomy.

Porter: There was no concerted effort to organize these grants. PEET was an appropriate funding source for the type of work that these three labs carry out. Simply, UGA has the strength and PEET is a logical place to get funding. That the grants have been awarded is a credit to UGA and the research that naturally goes on here.