Insects, DNA, and Pathogen Extracts Available to Borrow From NEON Biorepository
By Zoe Gentes
Need a selection of ground beetles from Virginia? Or some benthic macroinvertebrates from Puerto Rico? How about mosquito DNA extracts from sites across the U.S.?
All of these samples and more can be found at the NEON Biorepository, and they are available for researchers to check out and use.
The NEON Biorepository is an archive of physical samples collected through the National Ecological Observatory Network program, a long-term ecological observatory program funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and managed by Battelle. The Biorepository, managed by Arizona State University (ASU), preserves and archives all kinds of physical samples collected from the NEON terrestrial and aquatic field sites, including soils, sediments, water, leaf litter, plants, and insects. These samples can be checked out by interested researchers for additional study and analysis.
The Biorepository is a treasure trove—with a projected collection of over 1 million samples by 2026—for entomologists and others interested in insects, arthropods, and vector-borne diseases. It includes voucher specimens of identified carabids and mosquitoes along with invertebrate bycatch from pitfall trapping and DNA extracts from beetles, ticks, and mosquitoes. NEON also archives macroinvertebrates and zooplankton; a subset of identified individuals are preserved on slides. Whole specimens are available both in identified/sorted and unidentified/unsorted lots. Samples are typically loaned out for non-destructive use for 6- to 12-month periods; in some cases, samples may also be available for destructive or consumptive use. All requests are considered on a case-by-case basis.
In 2019, NEON developed a design plan to expand the renovated ASU space for the NEON Biorepository cryo collections. The design includes sample and materials processing and storage spaces, liquid nitrogen storage, mechanical freezer storage, a 105-square-foot walk-in fridge, and more. The layout is designed to accommodate the full 30-year NEON Biorepository cryo collections, and it will become functional in the Summer of 2020.
The NEON invertebrate sampling program strives to characterize indicator species and vectors across all 81 field sites. Each field site represents one of 20 broad ecoclimate zones across North America, from the arctic tundra in Alaska to the Atlantic Neotropical and Pacific Tropical sites in Puerto Rico and Hawaii. NEON collects carabids, ticks, and mosquitoes at terrestrial sites and macroinvertebrates and zooplankton at aquatic sites. NEON also analyzes DNA from selected samples (DNA barcoding or metabarcoding the cytochrome oxidase I locus) and conducts pathogen analysis on a subset of ticks and mosquitoes. Because invertebrate collection and analysis is performed using the same sampling protocols at all NEON field sites and will be conducted in the same way for the entire 30-year life of the program, the collections enable analysis and comparison across both space and time. That means researchers can use the collections to answer critical questions such as how species composition or pathogen status differs between different sites or how insect populations are changing over time.
In addition to the samples in the Biorepository, insect data collected by the NEON program are available through the NEON Data Portal. Researchers can find a wealth of additional data from the sites, such as meteorological data, vegetation structure and composition, leaf litter analysis, bird and small mammal counts, and much more. These data allow researchers to explore relationships between insect populations or pathogen status and other variables such as climate, vegetation characteristics, or the presence or absence of other insect, bird, fish or small mammal species.
Making physical samples available through the NEON Biorepository allows researchers to go beyond the data products available in the NEON Data Portal and explore other kinds of scientific questions. For example, a researcher may want to look at variables that the NEON project doesn’t measure, such as insect body size or mass. Other researchers may be interested in working with undescribed carabid species in the collection or looking for different species entirely from the invertebrate bycatch.
Katherine LeVan, Ph.D., the scientist managing the terrestrial invertebrate collection program, likens the Biorepository to a traditional natural history collection in some ways. “Researchers can do a wide range of specimen-based analyses,” she says. “We’ve had folks doing high-res photography, DNA metabarcoding, and machine learning with these invertebrate samples. But the NEON Biorepository is also radically different from other museum collections because NEON is collecting so much data co-located with the samples. Context is key to understanding the ‘why’ of these ecosystems and the organisms within them. NEON delivers samples in context on a scale no other organization has yet tried.”
The research possibilities enabled by the NEON Biorepository are innumerable. It will be exciting to see how researchers use these samples, and the discoveries that they make from them, in the years to come.
Most insect-related samples, along with other physical samples from the NEON project, are available through the NEON Biorepository at ASU. (See the complete list of available samples at ASU.) Researchers can request samples from the NEON Biorepository via the online Sample Request Form. Researchers must agree to follow the NEON sample use policy.
Whole tick vouchers are archived in ethanol at the U.S. National Tick Collection at Georgia Southern University. Additional legacy samples are also available from collections that existed prior to the NEON program’s transition to full operational status. These include pinned ground beetle specimens collected prior to 2018 at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and the Essig Museum of Entomology. These samples are cross-listed on the NEON Biorepository web portal, and requests for these samples should be made directly to the hosting organization.
Zoe Gentes is a senior communications specialist at Battelle with the National Ecological Observatory Network Program. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.