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Opinion: Codes of life

Unless funding becomes available, our collections of natural specimens will be lost forever โ€” and with them Earth's biodiversity.

A Blue Jeans Dart Frog, Dendrobates pumilio, is seen at La Selva biological station in Sarapiqui, in this Jan. 12, 2006 file picture. (Juan Carlos Ulate/Files/Reuters)

FALMOUTH, Mass. — Each day Nature loses ground. Earth’s biodiversity — the different kinds of wild, living things and where they are — degrades through climate change, exploitation and the submersion of natural landscapes under concrete and structures.

Natural history museums and related institutions can help fight back. They are the keepers of the codes of life. They have the collections and the curators, scientists and educators who understand biodiversity.

Their collections include hundreds of millions of specimens, whose lives extend from the present to millions of years back. They study the form and function of life, its DNA and its evolutionary paths, together with the ways in which human society impacts nature.

Some of this work is specific and immediate. A museum curator can identify and help to prevent the importation of a non-native snail that would cause great harm to our environment and our economy, if it successfully hitchhiked in on a shipment from abroad. She can find the genes that prove a population of fish is unique and that it thus warrants full protection under endangered species law.

Our natural history institutions also tend toward the broad, helping everyday citizens understand the scope, texture and importance of nature. Governmental policies on the environment ebb and flow with political tides, but our natural history institutions hold and articulate a deeper, more constant wisdom.

But our museum and living collections are under threat. Some have been sold or lost, their curators dispersed. We need public support to succeed. Just as our planet needs parks, forests and living oceans, it needs the people and the collected heritage of the wild to understand the life we enjoy and are trying to protect.

On June 25, 2009, international leaders of eight major natural history institutions assembled at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, where I was then the president, to discuss the future uses of our collections. We came up with two compelling recommendations:

First, we — the people of Earth — should preserve viable tissue and DNA of all known species. Efforts for conservation in the wild should be complemented with an initiative to preserve tissue and DNA. Beyond their critical role in identification and evolutionary research, such collections offer the potential to resurrect species after extinction.

A large effort has been made on this front for vascular plants, presumably prompted by the recognized importance of genetic diversity for agricultural crops. Plant seed banks include the Millennium Seed Bank Project of Kew Gardens in England, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault on Norway’s Spitsbergen Island in the Arctic, and Department of Agriculture labs in the United States in places such as Fort Collins, Colo. By comparison, only a limited number of commercialized species of animals have been addressed in such a fashion.