Algae Archive: Digitizing Biocultural Heritage

If we think about conservation, there is a very relevant aspect but not usually discussed: biological collections. Keys for the study of biodiversity and a fundamental source of scientific information, are systematized, well-identified, classified and ordered repositories of some type of biological material. Most of them are deposited in natural history or science museums, universities, research centers or in private collections.

As Sebastián Carrasco, a Master of Science with a minor in Botany and in charge of conservation projects at Bosque Pehuén, mentions, biological collections are important for the conservation of biodiversity because they provide long-term information. They are like “windows to the past”, which if they did not exist, relevant data on the natural history of the species would be very scarce or non-existent.

Also biological collections are very useful for understanding and monitoring ecological and evolutionary changes, such as changes in the geographic distribution of species, speciation processes, genetic drift, and extinction. This allows us to understand how species respond to environmental changes such as pollution, climate change, habitat loss, and the presence of invasive species, fundamental questions for conservation biology.

With the advancement of technology, the digitization of biological collections is increasingly being carried out, as well as the development of platforms to easily access them, which is very important in terms of disseminating knowledge in different sectors of society about the relevance and care of various species.

Such is the case of the Algae Archive. A project in charge of a transdisciplinary team made up of scientists and artists, headed by the strategic designer Javiera Gutiérrez, founder and director of Munani Alimentos, a food social innovation company that promotes the responsible consumption of endemic Chilean algae and that works in alliance with seaweed groups and collectors from the country’s coasts.

“The Algae Archive arose from the need to educate and raise awareness about the ecological and cultural value of native Chilean algae. In this way, a virtual catalog was prepared that included geolocation, 3D modeling and herborization of 10 species (in a first stage), which seeks to make visible the wealth of algae existing in the territory and highlight its role as biocultural heritage, to thus promoting conservation and knowledge about these important organisms”, mentions Javiera Gutiérrez.

Thanks to the FMA Fund and from work with seaweed communities in central and southern Chile, this archive was created. Javiera Gutiérrez says: “is conceived as a space for learning, conservation and contemplation of a selection of native seaweed from the Chilean coasts. The idea is to open educational, gastronomic and exhibition instances to link algae with people, and in this way, to be able to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the world of phycology, from a scientific, social, and cultural point of view”.

Esteban Serrano, interaction designer and software developer, who is dedicated to carrying out technological experiences for the area of ​​culture, research and design, and who was also involved in the project, tells that for the Algae Archive they developed 3D models manually based on images of the herborizations and other archival images.

The digitization process was carried out by Jaime Martinez, a 3D artist with extensive experience in digital modeling, and the commission he was given required showing the algae as if they were underwater. However, as Serrano says, most of the images of the algae are out of the water, in a dry and flat format. So, it was not easy to accurately reproduce its geometry. Also, the alga out of the water has another color. This, added to the high variability in the shape and size of the specimens, made achieving high fidelity in the 3D representation complex.

The Seaweed Archive, as Javiera Gutiérrez mentions, “is a project that in its second stage seeks to develop various instances, including an exhibition, herbalization workshops and cooking with seaweed. Anyway, there is the challenge of being able to increase the amount of algae in the digital archive, as well as approaching it from a transdisciplinary perspective: inviting artists to create works based on their interpretation of algae; include retrospective writing and even set each seaweed to music. Well, the idea is to increase the content of the archive, so that people can approach them from different perspectives”.

As expressed by Cristián Bulboa ━research professor at the Department of Ecology and Biodiversity of the Andrés Bello University, PhD in Sciences with a major in Botany (University of Sao Paulo, Brazil) and who published together with two other researchers, Alexis Bellorín (Universidad de Oriente , Venezuela) and Loretto Contreras-Porcia (Universidad Andrés Bello, Chile) the book Algas, an introduction to phycology one of the most important publications on algae ever written in Spanish━, “the digitization of biological collections of algae is very relevant given that it is a format that allows knowledge, which is often quite cryptic, to be brought closer to the entire population, and even better, when it is in a friendly format”.

“Let’s remember that scientific information is housed mainly in publications made by and for scientists, so having this information available in different languages ​​and formats and accessible to the public is very important. Knowledge and its dissemination are and will be essential in the coming years to raise awareness, educate and inform the population on issues of biodiversity and conservation, and to deliver quality information to decision makers, who may be very distant from the area or theme. that they are addressing, and for which they are responsible,” Bulboa mentions.

However, this researcher recognizes that the task of digitizing biological collections is not an easy task, since in addition to time and budget it requires the use of techniques for collecting and processing the material and the participation of experts in the field. This is quite challenging, he says, especially in complex and ever-changing biological groups like algae.

Faced with the question of how the digitization of marine biological collections has been developing at the national level, and what specific challenges there are in relation to algae, Cristián Bulboa acknowledges that this has progressed in some cases mainly through social networks.

“I have seen the effort of scientific colleagues (I include myself), who make their work known in their social networks, to inform and educate. Some technological applications have also appeared that help to identify species, but this is not yet massive. Foundations and NGOs have also valued knowledge through infographics, samples, exhibitions, etc. However, the digitalization of biological collections is something that is not so developed. With respect to algae there is much to know; Chile has a very long coastline and a group of excellent specialists in the field, but being a complex and unknown group, only in recent years has it become relevant to the population, recognizing the ecosystem importance of algae.”

Bulboa maintains that in a country that gives little relevance to science, looking for different formats to bring knowledge closer is a courageous act, which requires a lot of effort. In this sense, he recognizes that the Algae Archive project is an enormous contribution, since it is conceived with a very innovative look that explores new veins of scientific dissemination, mixing science, art, the work of experts, managers and artists. It comes at an excellent time when there is curiosity about the sea, its care and importance for the planet.

Maya Errázuriz, Director of art and publications of the Fundación Mar Adentro, mentions “there has been a movement worldwide towards the digitalization of biological collections with the purpose of being able to better preserve these collections, so that they last over time and at the same time give it greater visibility and possibilities of access. Biological collections are generally extremely delicate, so they cannot be manipulated, and digitization gives them the possibility of not only making them visible to scientists and academics, but also to the general public.”

When looking at a digital collection of the Algae Archive one can identify great artistic potential. It is a great opportunity to work together with scientists, artists, chefs, among others, in a transdisciplinary project on algae, to educate from different perspectives, and bring these species closer to people, especially in these times when the loss of biodiversity is increasing. , mentions Maya Errázuriz.


(Español) Tatiana Pavez

(Español) Tatiana Pavez, Directora de contenido de Fundación Mar Adentro.