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  May 14, 2001

Digital Database Broadens Access
to Researcher's Algae Collection

There's something reminiscent of the 19th century about Charles Yarish's seaweed collection. Tissue-thin specimens, in watercolor hues ranging from lilac and rose to amber and olive, painstakingly pasted to thick cream-colored sheets of paper and labeled by hand, are filed in the shallow drawers of a wooden cabinet or on shelves.

But there's nothing 19th-century about Yarish's research. The professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the Stamford campus uses DNA techniques, for example, to differentiate among species of algae, and is developing a farm in Long Island Sound to grow native American nori species - types of seaweed - for commercial purposes.

And now, on the initiative of two librarians at the Stamford campus and with technical help from information technology staff at Storrs, Yarish's collection is leapfrogging into the 21st century. His specimens are being captured as digital images and assembled into a virtual collection on the Web.

The project is funded by a $10,000 grant from the University Libraries, that has covered the cost of a new computer, MicroSoft ACCESS software, and a digital camera, complete with stand and special lights.

"Because the algae are very fragile objects, they can't be easily scanned," says Nancy Gillies, head librarian at the Stamford campus.

Yarish welcomes the opportunity to work collaboratively with the library staff. "This is a true partnership between myself as a researcher/educator and librarians involved in facilitating our education," he says.

Gillies, who has 20 years of experience as a library cataloguer, says her classification skills are coming in handy.

The fields in the database are based on the herbarium tags and include the name of the species, its location and habitat, the person who collected it and the date.

Gillies and Shelley Cudiner, a reference librarian at the Stamford campus, also worked with the Northeast Algal Society and received permission to use taxonomic data published by the Society. Cudiner is involved in the design of the website and has learned to use the digital camera.

In addition, the project has benefitted from some very specialized skills. The dried seaweed samples - many with delicate shapes like a fan or a feather - are fragile, and some items in the collection were in need of preservation. Carole Dyal, library conservator at the Storrs campus, helped restore some of the specimens.

"She has the proper glues," says Yarish, "What does a seaweed person know about glues?"

The 700-800 specimens in Yarish's seaweed herbarium come from all over world, but the bulk of the collection is from the New England region, especially Long Island Sound. He estimates 200-250 species are represented.

Yarish says he will work with other herbariums to include species that are not already represented, including the Smithsonian's national herbarium, the Marine Biological Labs at Woods Hole, and the New York Botanical Gardens.

Although Yarish has set aside a selection of 10-15 different types of algae that is regularly used as a teaching collection for introductory students in biology, he says the database will make a broader variety of species more widely available. He plans to use the collection in introductory classes in biology, ecology, marine biology, marine botany, and introduction to algae. He will encourage teachers in K-12 classrooms to use it as well.

He says having the collection more accessible will help in the conservation of species. "I tell students not to tear off certain types of seaweed," he says. "Some are critical to the functioning of a particular ecosystem and some are quite old. Ripping up some seaweeds - like the brown alga called Ascophyllum (also known as knotted wrack) - is like pulling out old-growth trees from a forest."

Although primarily intended as a teaching tool, the database will also offer researchers access to "primary research collections that have seen very little light of day," says Yarish.

"I and my colleagues are finding new specimens that have never been described before in Long Island Sound, right under our noses," he says. "For example, we found maybe another half dozen species of Porphyra that all look very similar, but have subtle differences that are accentuated in their DNA. We have a living culture collection at UConn-Stamford that is a living gene bank, in addition to our herbarium specimens."

In the future, specimens of the new species will be added to the herbarium and entered into the database.

The database, which may take a year to complete, will be available on the University Libraries website. It will also be made into a CD-Rom.

"If we're successful, we'll be able to digitize almost anything, and help other people to do it," says Gillies. "Who knows what other resources are on campus? The possibilities are almost infinite."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu

The website is at: http://www.algae.uconn.edu

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