For the next 30 years, ASU will receive as many as 100,000 biological samples each year. These diverse bio-samples will include DNA extractions, frozen soil samples, bulk and pinned insect collections, herbarium vouchers, and partial or entire vertebrate specimens, among others. Dozens of expert field biologists will gather the samples and associated data and send them to ASU.

Once they arrive at the university, the samples will be processed, stored and made available to the public and to use for scientific research. Detailed information about each specimen will be available online through the NEON Data Portal and a new NEON Biorepository Data Portal, based on the “Symbiota” software platform developed by ASU.

More valuable research over the long term

Given the current and potential future effects of environmental change, the NEON project is of critical importance. Because the project will span three decades, scientists will be able to gather long-term ecological data that they could not with shorter studies. 

“NEON is designed to test the degree to which Earth’s ecosystems influence each other across very large scales of space and time,” said James P. Collins, Virginia M. Ullman Professor of Natural History and the Environment at ASU. “The NEON observatory is being commissioned at a time when Earth’s ecosystems are changing at an increasing rate and over ever greater spatial scales. This makes NEON exactly the right research infrastructure to have in place to help us understand environmental change and other large-scale forces influencing Earth’s ecosystems. The biorepository will help to place ASU at the leading edge of macrosystems-level research.”

As head of the Biological Sciences Directorate at NSF from 2005 to 2009, Collins played a lead role in securing funding for building NEON by working with the research community, NSF’s leadership, the National Science Board, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, and Congress.

Opportunity for student learning

The NEON Biorepository will be housed at the existing ASU Natural History Collections facility. Eventually, the biorepository will need additional space and will include specially designed freezer storage. Large portions of samples are intended for cryo-storage — a combination of ultralow and liquid nitrogen freezers that will ensure long-term preservation for genomic research.

Hundreds of biodiversity sample shipments will arrive each year that will need to be processed. And a high rate of sample use for NEON-related research projects is expected. To meet the work demands, Franz and his team will hire at least six collection specialists and up to 10 undergraduate student workers who will be closely involved in the project.

"ASU students will receive state-of-the-art skills in bio-collections curation and biodiversity data science,” said Franz. “The latter theme will be connected to efforts within and beyond our school to boost undergraduate as well as graduate training in data science that is related specifically to the complex fields of evolutionary biology and ecological data."

Professor Kathleen Pigg, a paleobotanist with the ASU Natural History Collections, said this is an exciting time for ASU students, as they will be provided unique research experiences.

“The presence of the NEON biorepository at the Natural History Collections will provide tremendous opportunities for students to participate in data collection and curation vital to addressing environmental issues,” said Pigg. 

The ASU team will begin accepting biological samples this fall.

Sandra Leander

Assistant Director of Media Relations, ASU Knowledge Enterprise