Welcome to the Largest Global Plant Database

Image: www.biendata.org

An international group used CyVerse resources to develop the database, now freely available to researchers and the public.

By Shelley Littin

An international group has used CyVerse resources to compile and publish the most comprehensive collection of global plant information yet, making botanical data freely accessible to researchers around the world.

“The database addresses a key knowledge gap in botanical research: despite modern data collection techniques, we still know remarkably little about what plants grow where,” said Brian Maitner, a doctoral candidate at the University of Arizona who is the lead author of a new paper that centrally highlights the ecological importance of CyVerse computing resources.”

“Life on Earth critically depends on plant life, which forms the basis of all terrestrial food webs,” said Brian Enquist, lead investigator of the international, National Science Foundation-supported Botanical Information and Ecology Network (BIEN) and a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona (also headquarters of CyVerse) and Maitner’s PhD advisor. “Humanity depends on plant life for food, fuel, medicine, shelter, and numerous other uses.”

Yet, Enquist continued: “Even the most rudimentary information, such as where a given species can be found, what characterizes each species, remain ‘difficult to access. This lack of basic information about the Earth’s biosphere has restricted scientific progress and efforts to utilize plants for human needs.”

Further, Enquist said, “life on Earth is coping with rapid environmental and biological changes globally.” Since plant scientists around the world face computational barriers that limit data access and integration, “we don’t have a good handle on which plants are endangered, what benefits we risk losing, or even what we may have already lost.”

Now, BIEN, a National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis working group comprised of more than 50 scientists from around the world, has delivered a solution.

The group recently published a database that represents the largest collection of plant information ever assembled, and an accompanying computational infrastructure for accessing and curating the collection. The database and workflows are described in a Methods in Ecology and Evolution publication by Maitner and others. 

“This represents an important leap forward in open access to botanical data collected by publicly-funded researchers,” said Maitner. “The ability to easily access many different types of botanical data across the globe is unique and provides the basis to explore and discover the plant diversity in most parts of the planet.”

The database and infrastructure, which rely upon the CyVerse Discovery Environment and iRODS platform to store the botanical and geographic range data, make botanic information on species diversity, geographic distribution, traits, and phylogenetic relationships freely available for the first time for researchers all over the world and the general public to access.

“The CyVerse computing environment provided a powerful means to scale up our code and computing needs,” noted Maitner.

“CyVerse was key in developing the computational workflow behind the data integration for the BIEN database, as well as for computing the geographic ranges of 100,000 plant species across North and South America,” Enquist added.

Enquist anticipates that the information can be used for understanding the evolution of plant form and function in the past to identifying high-priority conservation areas in the near future. “The University of Arizona is a global leader as a nexus for discovery,” he said. “This information can be used not only for academics, but also for policymakers, land managers, and the general public, to explore what plants are around you.”