This collaborative project comprised of ten awards will integrate information about bryophytes and lichens, with each other and with their commensal organisms, including fungi, on a worldwide scale. Bryophytes and lichens are functionally related as the main hosts for cryptobiotic communities forming minute “forests” that provide a matrix of habitats for many microscopic organisms, including tardigrades, mites, rotifers, micro-mollusks, microalgae, microfungi, and prokaryotes. These communities have global relevance and perform essential functions on our planet, for example, the biological soil crusts that harbor these communities form a “living skin” covering approximately 12% of Earth’s terrestrial surface. In addition, professional training will be provided for a large number of undergraduates, with a focus on leveraging local resources to promote underrepresented students in STEM fields. Students will be trained in digitization and collections management, and will contribute to the education and public outreach components of the project.

Through this collaboration, twenty-five US herbaria will image and digitize associated metadata for almost 1.2 million bryophyte and lichen herbarium specimens held in US institutions. Imaging the physical specimens of these organisms and integrating data from comparative genomics, nucleotide sequence data, and other resources is unprecedented on this scale. These integrated data will form a critical resource for evolutionary and ecological studies, that may, in turn, lead to a deeper understanding of (1) how biocrusts perform their ecosystem functions, (2) the roles of bryophytes and lichens in carbon/nitrogen cycling, (3) the dynamic evolution of symbioses in space and time, (4) the historical and contemporary drivers of endophyte co-diversification, and (5) the evolution of biodiversity using spatial phylogenetics. Deep-learning approaches using repurposed digital images may also provide powerful new investigative tools. Digitized data will be shared with and other repositories. A multi-pronged approach to broader impacts spans from K-12 to participatory citizen science initiatives. These include (1) diverse digital, interactive, and object-based learning outreach programs; (2) online lesson plans; (3) science youth groups; (4) Science Clubs and public educator workshops; and (5) a series of videos using Learning Glass – which collapses the perspectives of viewer and presenter into one shared perspective. In addition, the PIs and collaborating institutions will host WeDigBio and K-12 clubs hosting label transcription crowdsourcing events during the award period. The project also partners with Zooniverse, leaders in online citizen science, where we will develop an online platform for citizen scientists to make observations on character traits that can then enhance metadata not always on the scientific label data.