Texas A&M AgriLife has joined more than 25 institutions to make 1.3 million parasites available for research and public study through digitization. 

The Terrestrial Parasite Tracker will be available through the Symbiota Collections of Arthropods Network, or SCAN. A&M’s department of wildlife and fisheries sciences and department of entomology will help digitize 175,000 specimens — including ticks, mosquitoes and mites — from the Biodiversity Research and Teaching Collections and the Texas A&M Insect Collection. The effort is made possible by a three-year, $4.3 million National Science Foundation grant and leadership from Purdue University and the

Milwaukee Public Museum. Researchers with Texas A&M AgriLife will digitize thousands of terrestrial arthropod parasites that are currently pinned, in vials or in slides for the Terrestrial Parasite Tracker network.

Currently, museums and other institutions store personal collections of various parasites in their own facilities, but Jessica Light, associate professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said that digitization opens new doors for future research. 

“If collections aren’t shared online electronically, it’s not usable to anybody,” Light said. “If we make the information about those specimen available electronically, over the web through a variety of different means, researchers can use that data to address a variety of questions, including the spread of vector-borne diseases.” 

As the research continues throughout the next three years, board members will meet to discuss how the information that is being gathered can best be used for future research. 

Creating a database of this size is an undertaking that will take about 30 people on A&M’s end, Light said. 

Even so, digitizing thousands of specimens that are on pins, slides or in vials may take more than the grant’s allotted three years. If it does, Light said the team might try to apply for new funding or aim to earn grants that would allow them to study other types of parasites.

While SCAN is the main web portal that data will become available on throughout the next three years, Light said information also will be put on Integrated Digitized Biocollections, or iDigBio. 

The information also will be made available on Global Biotic Interactions. Displaying the information on GloBI will help make biotic interaction data, or host-parasite association data, easily accessible online. This will allow researchers to know things like how widespread their parasite is and how easily it transfers from various types of hosts.

Additionally, Light said, the team is trying to involve people outside of the research community with educational components because it wants the general public to benefit from the information as well. Light said the data will be free on these sites and accessible to anyone who is interested in the information. 

While the project will serve many purposes, Light said she hopes it helps create a standard of online information sharing among researchers. 

“The hope is that working with these different specimens, we are developing efficient workflows with how our data should be digitized and put online to begin with,” Light said. “Hopefully every institution involved will start doing this for all the types of specimens in their collections.”

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