Check it Out: NEON Biorepository is Open for Business

January 16, 2019

Need a bulk order of ground beetles? How about some frozen soil samples? Or a selection of well-preserved small mammal specimens?

Now, you can check out these and dozens of other biological sample types from the NEON Biorepository, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and managed by Arizona State University (ASU).

A New Home for the NEON Biorepository

The new biorepository is located in partially remodeled 70,000-square foot buildingjust two miles from the main Arizona State University-Tempe campus. Thousands of legacy samples from the ASU Natural History Collections are already stored and displayed here in 23,000-ft2 section of the building. Another similarly sized section is available for renovation and will house the biological samples collected at NEON field sites over the 30-year life of the Observatory.

Nico Franz, the Principal Investigator and Director of Biocollections, says, "There is still much work to do to complete the physical facility and the online data portal, but the collections we have here are available to view and loan to researchers now. It's exciting to see the vision for the NEON Biorepository becoming a reality."

ASU's large facility and experience in housing their own expansive collection of biological samples made the university a good fit to manage the newer, but rapidly growing, NEON collection. Collection specialists are now in the process of incorporating specimens collected at NEON field sites over the last several years into the ASU infrastructure. A large number of biological samples from the early years of the NEON project are already stored at the individual NEON domain facilities, many of which will be transferred to the new facility. Eventually, most of the NEON biological samples will be housed here, with the exception of ticks and a few other special collections.

Under the NSF contract, ASU is adding a project manager, three collection managers and two biodiversity informaticians to the existing collections group to manage the collection and collaborate with researchers who need access to physical samples and data. Over the next several months, the team will be working to catalog and store samples sent from the NEON domains, oversee renovations for cryo collections in the new section, publish the first version of the Sample Use Policy, and create a public NEON Biorepository online data portal to facilitate remote sample discovery for loans and other uses.

A Biological Collection of Growing Scientific Value

The primary NEON Biorepository at ASU will include plant, animal, soil, water, microbe and DNA samples from 81 NEON field sites across all of 20 NEON domains, creating a biological collection of unprecedented scale and scope. The archive will become even more valuable over time as it continues to grow. Specimens are collected, logged and preserved according to strict and uniform protocols to ensure data accuracy and physical sample integrity. This will give researchers access to a huge trove of data and physical samples of known quality and provenance to support a broad range of research efforts.

NEON field sites are expected to generate more than 100,000 new samples for ASU to process each year, including samples and specimens from both terrestrial and aquatic field sites.NEON samples and specimens to be stored at the ASU facility include insects; small mammal whole specimens, hair and whisker samples, ear punches, blood, and feces; frozen soil samples; plants and plant tissues; leaf litter; aquatic mosses and algae; microbes; fish specimens and tissues; and DNA. To explore the types of archival samples NEON collects and how they are stored, users can explore the NEON archival samples catalog.

In addition to NEON samples, researchers are also be able to view and borrow specimens from the ASU legacy collections. The ASU Natural History Collections are considered among the best in the world, with more than 3 million specimens dating back to the late 1800s. ASU collections include insects, mollusks, vascular and fossil plants, lichens, birds, reptiles and amphibians, and mammals, with a focus on the southwestern U.S.

Discovering Biological Samples

Each sample collected by NEON is given a unique identifier that is documented with its corresponding data product. For example, a beetle sample identifier can be found when a user downloads the “Ground beetles sampled from pitfall traps” data product. The data download is accompanied by a variables table that includes the sample identifiers and the data table in which they appear. Sample identifiers can be entered into the NEON Sample Viewer located on the NEON data portal to look up the current location of a particular sample.

While the majority of NEON samples will be housed at the primary NEON biorepository in Arizona. There are some exceptions including ticks, megapit soil samples, and various types of legacy samples. To see a list of where samples are housed, visit this page.

Checking Out Biological Samples for Research

The mission of the NEON Biorepository is to make these samples available to researchers to support diverse and appropriate research programs. Nico says, "I prefer the term biorepository over bioarchive, because an archive suggests that the specimens will just sit here gathering dust. We want them to be used instantly and continuously."

The potential scientific uses of the collection are wide-ranging. Some possible uses could include DNA analysis to trace animal or pathogen migration, studies of microbial communities in soil or water samples, or analysis of physical traits of plant or animal species and populations across different ecoclimate zones. "There are endless research questions that can be investigated through a biorepository of this size and scope," Nico says.

Researchers who are considering applying for the NSF-funded Macrosystems Biology and NEON-Enabled Science (MSB-NES) grant (due February 25, 2019) can include the use of biorepository samples in their proposals right now. This grant supports "research on biological systems at regional to continental scales." Proposers are encouraged to use NEON resources, which could include the physical samples in the biorepository as well as data from the NEON Data Portal.

The physical samples collected in the biorepository can be accessed and studied in person at the Tempe facility or checked out by individual researchers to use at their own locations. Interested researchers will need to submit a request that details which samples they need, for how long, how they will be used, and the scientific value of their work. Some samples may only be available for non-destructive uses (such as documenting species traits), while others may be available for research that involves dividing or destroying a sample for analysis.

Once the online portal is up and running, researchers will be able to search for and check out samples online. For now, they can contact Nico directly for assistance. "People don't need to wait for the online portal to be available to make use of the collection. We are ready to provide researchers with information and access to the samples they need for analysis now," he says.

Contacting the NEON Biorepository

The NEON Biorepository and ASU Natural History Collections are open to the public during regular work hours during the week and on weekends by arrangement. Free parking is available right at the building.

The facility is located at:

734 West Alameda Drive, Tempe, AZ 85282, USA
Google Maps: https://goo.gl/maps/RTvh298tjn12

For more information on checking out samples from the NEON Biorepository, contact:

Nico M. Franz, Ph.D.
NEON Biorepository / ASU Natural History Collections

Arizona State University
P.O. Box 874108
Tempe, AZ 85287-4108, U.S.A.

Phone: (480) 965-2036
Fax: (480) 727-2203
E-mail: nico.franz@asu.edu

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