Genetics research involves a lot of complex science and technology, but on a practical level, says Keith Barker, it’s not all that complicated: “We have to keep the freezers running.”
As the genetic resources curator at the Bell Museum, Barker says his first priority is ensuring the tissues are frozen properly, so that scientists can extract DNA for years to come. Several freezers at the University of Minnesota contain these tissues—or “chunks of dead things,” as Barker casually refers to them—vertebrates, plants, and fungi included. He organizes the tissues, makes the data available, and links it to specimens in the collection.
The chunks come from all corners of the globe, wherever the Bell curators have conducted research, from rainforest trees in New Guinea, to salamanders in Central America, songbirds in South America, or mushrooms in Minnesota.
A first-generation college graduate who grew up in Colorado, Barker thanks his middle-school teacher for getting him hooked on science at an early age. He studied biology at Reed College, then evolutionary biology at the University of Chicago, where he got experience working with curators at the Field Museum. He did his dissertation on phylogeny and behavioral evolution in wrens.
Later, as a postdoctoral fellow at the American Museum of Natural History, Barker met his wife, Sharon Jansa. Today, in a biology love story for the ages, the two work together as Bell Museum curators (Sharon oversees the mammal collection) and as faculty in the College of Biological Sciences.
Scientists from Minnesota and beyond request loans from the Bell’s genetic resources. Through traditional and newer methods of DNA sequencing and data sorting, they learn how species, individuals, and populations are related, how they moved from one region to another, and how they evolved in the first place.
DNA also reveals how many species there are in the world today. There’s still a lot of room for improvement in this area, says Barker. “For birds and mammals, we have a pretty good idea. For amphibians and reptiles, we have a lot worse idea. And for plants, it’s ridiculous how little we know.”
The genetic collection will not only help to fill in gaps in current research. It will also serve as a critical resource for future generations.
Barker mentions how people used to collect eggs in the 19th and early 20th centuries, simply because they found them interesting. But when eagles and other raptor populations began to decline in the mid-20th century, researchers went back and looked at those eggs—and they found a link between DDT and eggshell thinning. The insecticide was making the shells so fragile that the eggs were crushed in the nest before the raptors could develop and hatch. This was a major piece of evidence in getting DDT banned in many countries.
“You’re saving these bits of organisms and you know how they are currently used, but you don’t know how they might be used in the future,” says Barker. “Maybe the technology doesn’t exist yet.”
Who knows what these “chunks of dead things” will tell us 20, 50, or 100 years from now? In the meantime, let’s keep those freezers running. Our future may depend on it.
Along with curating the genetics resource collection, Barker serves as interim bird curator until Sushma Reddy takes over this fall. Currently, the Bell’s bird collection contains more than 45,000 specimens from nearly 2,000 different species.
As a collaborator on the OpenWings project, Barker is working with scientists from more than 10 other institutions to build an avian tree of life. “We’ll sequence 5,000 loci from every single species of bird,” he says. “We’re looking to create the phylogeny of all birds, based on next-generation sequencing techniques.”
Barker isn’t new to ambitious evolutionary research. This year, he won the Brina C. Kessell Publication Award for his paper, “New insights into New World biogeography: An integrated view from the phylogeny of blackbirds, cardinals, sparrows, tanagers, warblers, and allies.” In that study, he and his colleagues generated the phylogeny for about 900 species of New World birds. “By figuring out how those species were related, we could infer where they came from originally and how much they’ve moved between North and South America.”
Barker also led the first phase of the Minnesota Biodiversity Atlas, where anyone can go for geospatial data on local and global birds (not to mention plants, mammals, fish, and everything else in the Bell collections). His favorite thing to talk about from the bird collection are the extinct birds like passenger pigeons and Carolina parakeets. “The same thing that happened to those birds is happening now to other species on the planet from overexploitation, land degradation, and other human activities.”
Why should we care about keeping all the birds alive? From a purely selfish standpoint, our quality of life suffers without them. For an alarming case in point, look at Guam. The island is covered with spiders and spider webs due to lack of birds, who were killed off by an invasive snake. Birds eat pests that are on our crops. Less birds means more mosquitoes. From birds to wolves, pollinators to plants, it’s all connected.
But preserving biodiversity is also a matter of aesthetics, says Barker. “I don’t want to live in a world where we have house sparrows but we don’t have Quetzals. You want to go outside and experience the beauty of nature, and if those things are gone, they’re gone forever.”