Microplants

At the Field Museum of Natural History, where I am a Research Associate in the Science and Education Department, I’m one of several Chicago-area faculty working with bryologist and botanical collections manager Dr. Matt Von Konrat on an exciting citizen science project called “Microplants” — an online resource sponsored by Zooniverse and launched in the fall of 2014 that uses crowd-sourcing data analysis techniques to advance taxonomic research on early land plant specimens in the Field Museum’s vast botanical collection.

One of thousands of microscopic images of the Frullania genus of liverworts contained in the Microplants database; this one has key structural features identified, which allow citizen scientists to perform standardized measurements on randomly generated images of collected Frullania specimens (source: M. Von Konrat, FMNH)

One of thousands of microscopic images of the Frullania genus of liverworts contained in the Microplants database; this one has key structural features identified, which allow citizen scientists to perform standardized measurements on randomly generated images of collected Frullania specimens (source: M. Von Konrat, FMNH)

The project has significant implications for the documentation of early land plant biodiversity, general science education at the K-12 and college levels, and public engagement with conservation, climate change, and other critical issues. As noted here on the Microplants website:

[B]ryophytes are the second largest group of land plants after flowering plants, and are pivotal in our understanding of early land plant evolution. Bryophytes are an important component of the vegetation in many regions of the world, constituting a major part of the biodiversity in moist forest, wetlands, mountain, and tundra ecosystems. Liverworts and mosses offer microhabitats that are critical to the survival of a tremendous diversity of organisms such as single-celled eukaryotes, protozoa, and numerous groups of invertebrates. Their structural contribution to levels of diversity might be as significant as that of vascular plants, albeit at a smaller scale.

Liverworts in a Fiji forest (source: M. Von Konrat, FMNH)

Liverworts, in concert with mosses and hornworts, play a significant role in the global carbon budget and CO2 exchange, plant succession, net production and phytomass, nutrient cycling, and water retention. These plants also are important environmental and ecological indicators and have been used as indicators of past climate change, to validate climate models, and are potential indicators of global warming. Chemical compounds extracted from liverworts also exhibit important biological activities. For example, chemical extracts derived from Frullania species have anti-microbial, anti-fungal, cytotoxic, insect and muscle relaxing activity.

In March of 2018, the first peer-reviewed publication documenting the Microplants project appeared in the journal Applications in Plant Sciences. The full citation and a pdf of the article are here:

“Using Citizen Science to Bridge Taxonomic Discovery with Education and Outreach.” Matt von Konrat (lead author), Thomas Campbell, Ben Carter, Matthew Greif, Mike Bryson, et al. Applications in Plant Science, vol. 6, no. 2, 2018, pp. e1023. Invited article for the special issue: “Green Digitization: Online Botanical Collections Data Answering Real-World Questions.” doi: 10.1002/aps3.1023. (pdf)