|Researchers use PEET grants to
raise profile of taxonomy in scientific
Partnerships in Enhancing Expertise in
Taxonomy, or PEET, is a special National Science Foundation
program intended to raise the profile of taxonomy in the
scientific community. Three UGA researchers who have PEET
grants talked with Columns about what the grants mean for
What is the purpose of a PEET grant?
Farmer: As researchers
become increasingly specialized in molecular techniques, the
scientific community is losing the expertise necessary to
actually identify the organisms we study.
Porter: The PEET grant
primarily aims at understanding diversity, evolution and the
biology of understudied organisms. It also involves training
McHugh: Biologists cannot
access scientific literature or publish their research without
knowing the names of their creatures.
We want to
generate a large body of taxonomic resources and make them
accessible on the Web so that researchers everywhere can
easily work with these understudied taxa.
Farmer: Also, we hope to
set aside some of the misconceptions that people have that
systematics is an old-fashioned, archaic science that no
longer plays a role in modern biology.
Columns: Why is this kind of
McHugh: Precise species
identifications are very important in many situations. For
instance, in a port like Savannah, if a ship arrives with
insects on board, the inspectors need to know whether that
ship should be allowed to enter, fumigated or turned away.
Unless somebody with taxonomic expertise can look at the
insects and say, �There�s no danger at all�let it in,� we
cannot know if the insects are going to wipe out the forests
of North America.
Porter: When frogs started
dying at the Washington Zoo, no one knew what the causal
organism was. Fortunately, someone had seen an image that
looked like the electron micrograph of the mystery organism.
They wrote to one of my collaborators and said, �What is
this?� She identified a new organism: frog chytrids, which
would not have been discovered without a taxonomist with
knowledge about chytrids, their structure and the things that
Farmer: Taxonomy also
supports other kinds of research. For example, GenBank, an
online database of gene and protein sequences, is organized
around species� names. Right now, most are easily recognizable
species, but as we sequence unknown organisms, it becomes
extremely problematic to just put a sequence out there and
say, �Well, it�s from something, but we don�t know what.� It
is a bit like taking random pages out of a book, putting them
out there and calling it a library without knowing which books
the pages are from. That is where people trained in
systematics play an important role, because we can then tie
back the gene sequences to the original organisms.
Columns: How has the grant affected
your research direction?
Porter: This grant moved a
lot of my research into formal, monographic, taxonomic work
and allowed me to focus on more phylogenetic analysis using
genetic information. When I grew up in biology, there was no
evolutionary information available other than speculation on
the limited morphology that organisms have.
Farmer: The biggest way it
has changed my research is through support for the students. I
have been able to attract some very good students to work on
McHugh: We got the PEET
grant to do exactly the type of work that our lab group
already was doing. Now, we can do it much better. PEET
provides excellent support for students. The graduates and
undergraduates who are trained through this project will have
had the �Cadillac� of educational experiences.
Columns: Who is involved in your
Porter: My grant is a
collaboration with colleagues at the University of Alabama and
the University of Maine.
McHugh: Between UGA and my
collaborators at Brigham Young University, there are two
postdoctoral associates, five graduate students at UGA and
Farmer: My lab has a very
close relationship with another at Michigan State University.
Our PEET-related research has also led to two international
collaborations, although these labs are not funded through
Columns: Why do you think that UGA
has so many PEET grants on campus?
Farmer: It has a lot to do
with the facilities. PEET projects combine classic morphology
with modern molecular techniques. All of our groups are using
classical microscopy and gene sequencing.
McHugh: The PEET people
here on campus have strong taxonomic backgrounds and good
training records. NSF wants to support real taxonomists, not
people who are actually doing something else and only dabbling
Porter: There was no
concerted effort to organize these grants. PEET was an
appropriate funding source for the type of work that these
three labs carry out. Simply, UGA has the strength and PEET is
a logical place to get funding. That the grants have been
awarded is a credit to UGA and the research that naturally
goes on here.