Developing a Synthesis of Systematic Resources (SYNTHESYS)

contributors: Deborah Paul, Vince Smith, Laurence Livermore


From iDigBio, I’ve had the pleasure of being a member of the Synthesis of Sytematic Resources (SYNTHESYS) Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) to act as an external advisor on shared digital challenges between SYNTHESYS3 and iDigBio, to and to cross-promote activities between the two projects with other groups such as SPNHC. You might ask, what exactly is SYNTHESYS?


Laurence writes:

SYNTHESYS is a 21 partner project, involving most major natural history institutions in Europe. SYNTHESYS  is also probably one of the most long-running formal collaborations between these institutions. Natural history collections are a distributed infrastructure. Collectively the SYNTHESYS participants hold over 385 million specimens, including four million type specimens. SYNTHESYS aims to provide better physical and digital access to these collections, develop new methods to extract and enhance collections data and deliver collection management policies and shared standards and protocols.”

SYNTHESYS rests on efforts from groundwork by European Commission grants starting all the way back in 1998. Beginning in 2004, under the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6), SYNTHESYS members collaborated to 1) facilitate and finance researchers transnational access to collections, 2) network across the consortium to deliver collection management policies, best practice models, unified standards and protocols for new and emerging collections, and 3) engage in joint research activities to address key and current issues such as developing new software, new DNA extraction micro-sampling techniques, improving digital data access, and enhancing virtual collections for the global community.

Compare this model with the Advancing the Digitization of Biocollections (ADBC) NSF program which focuses on mobilizing collections data; the SYNTHESYS model strives to facilitate research by supporting researchers’ access to collections and collections’ facilities (like chemical analysis, molecular labs, imaging tools and expertise) -- and supporting collection (institution) networking and collaboration.


Synthesys3 held their final meeting on June 6-7, 2017 at the Natural History Museum (NHM), London. After hearing an introduction from project coordinator Vince Smith, Vanessa Pike, Head of Science Resources at the  NHM, provided all participants with an overview of the history behind SYNTHESYS, their accomplishments and hints at what is being envisioned to happen next.



Agenda and talks. Synthesys3 Final Meeting Visit the site for more details on topics discussed and see the slides for yourself.



For one example of what Synthesys3 worked on, you can review the talk by Jonathan Brecko (Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences) titled “Wiki-handbook of best practice and standards for 3D imaging of natural history specimens” presented at the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC) 2017 Conference. This resource is ready for anyone, worldwide, to contribute and share their 3D imaging and protocol best practices.


This group plans to apply for one more round of funding -- as SYNTHESYS+. Part of this meeting at the NHM focused on collaboratively setting goals to include in this proposal due March 22, 2018. Potentially, this will be the last time that this group can apply for this funding. SYNTHESYS+ will be aligned with the goals that support the creation of the Distributed System of Scientific Collections - DiSSCo.



Some likely components of Synthesys+:


  • Extend reciprocal Transnational Access to a (single?) non-EU NH collection

  • Develop “collections on demand” services (digitisation, molecular, analytical)

  • Build larger coordinated network of molecular data sharing between partners

  • Prototype and apply computer vision and machine learning

Currently, DiSSCo partners across Europe are  busy putting together their final proposal and signing on as many countries as possible – to enhance their chances of getting on the roadmap of the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI). In brief, DiSSCo aims to bring together all European Natural History collections into an integrated research infrastructure by unifying their collections activities, data, digital services and policies. DiSSCo will provide new governance framework to align the activities and strategy of participating institutions.


Some highlights and impressive SYNTHESYS statistics!

Two of the talks presented were by researchers whose work was / is funded by the SYNTHESYS project: Untangling the evolution of dolphin-like marine crocodiles during the Age of Dinosaurs by Mark Young and Discovering a new rule in the evolution of mammals by Andrea Cardini.

Since 2004, SYNTHESYS has provided funding support for over 50,000 user-days and more than 4000 projects. This collaboration and assistance has resulted in over 4,700 research outputs including over 800 publications (accepted or in press). (from Kristina Gorman’s talk: SYNTHESYS3: Transnational Access supporting research.

Just before our lunch break, we were treated to our Keynote talk: The value and role of natural history collections by Peter Raven! A personal thrill for me (Deb) to meet the author of the Biology of Plants text, used in my university course, a long time ago.

Other topics we covered included sustainability, the need for international and industrial collaboration, development of digital collections, Inselect, Zoosphere, crowdsourcing, 3D digitization, collections management, collections self-assessment (CSAT), best practices handbook, molecular collections, DiSSCo, and a review of the recent SYNTHESYS survey. You can see these presentations yourself on the SYNTHESYS3 Final Meeting website.

DiSSCo looks forward to having iDigBio as an international non-EU partner - and so do we. Here’s to SYNTHESYS+ and DiSSCo getting funded!