When you think about visiting a natural history museum, the first thing that comes to mind are dinosaur bones or animals with taxis.
Behind the visitor exhibits, however, is ongoing research into samples collected from around the world. Moreover, this function is an essential line of defense in pandemic preparedness.
According to Jocelyn Colella, a research researcher with the University of Kansas Institute of Biodiversity and a mammal assistant curator with the KU Natural History Museum, museums operate as a kind of decentralized pathogen study network. In a piece recently published in Science, Colella and colleagues argue that expanded biodiversity infrastructure will be an essential line of defense in post – COVID-19 pandemic preparedness.
“Museum visitors see samples on display, but hundreds and thousands more are safely kept behind the scenes – it’s up to museum curators to make sure that those samples are preserved and available for future research, “she said.” Fifty years ago, we weren’t ordering DNA. But now we are – and samples preserved over decades, or even centuries, can now be used for molecular analysis. We have two nitrogen dew drops here at the Biodiversity Institute that keep frozen nappies from all kinds of animals, from all over the world. These figs can be used to classify whole genomes to identify how animals adapt or respond to changing conditions. “
Colella said such collections preserve samples and also capture a community of microorganisms that use the organism as a host.
“You can also sort viruses, bacteria and fungi from these frozen products – so not only will you get information about the host organism or mammal, but you’ll also find information about their whole community,” she said. .
Since more than half of the diseases that emerge in humans come from wildlife, such as COVID-19 (which scientists believe has jumped to humans from equine bats), museum samples hold the genetic insights needed to find out where they came from and to better understand and fight them. pathogens – especially in countries at high risk for emerging zoonotic disease, such as those with high species diversity and high frequency of human wildlife contact.
“As the population grows, we will continue to communicate with new, different and more animals. That increases the risk of these disease-borne outbreaks,” Colella said. “The interesting thing with natural history museum collections is that we sample over time. You can explore the same areas over and over again, sampling all sorts of different animals, which give us an idea of how long a virus has been in existence and where it came from. “
The researcher identified KU hantavirus as an example where biodiversity collections were collaborating with the Centers for Disease Control to help fight off a disease that had entered a population of humans from animals.
“Parallel to the current outbreak of COVID-19, there was a 1993 outbreak of hantavirus in the American Southwest that resulted in the deaths of many people, and we had no idea where it came from, “said Colella. “The CDC asked the Southwest Museum of Biology to help locate the virus’ reservoir host, and cited deer mice as the source. Researchers were able to then go back to these historical mammal collections and find that this disease had been in rodent numbers for over 10 years before it spread to humans.This kind of information allow us to gain an evocative view of what happened between when this virus appeared in rodents and when it became harmful to humans – what has changed? That will allow us to respond and prevent an outbreak. in the future. “
While the importance of natural history museums to human health has never been higher, in recent years the number of samples deposited in biodiversity collections has declined.
Second paper written by Colella and colleagues, just published in Biology, explaining ways to reverse this downward trend.
“Another reason scientists have difficulty identifying reservoir hosts and detecting novel viruses is because the sampling center in museums just doesn’t exist, and not because there aren’t scientists taking samples, “she said. “This is because there are no requirements for landing samples at museums or public places. There is an ethical issue with collecting animals and then keeping all those samples in your personal freezer. forever until you retire or lose all the IDs and can’t link to XYZ, and it was all for nine. We can do better. “
According to Colella, several studies have tracked the number of samples deposited over the past few decades and show a “dramatic decline” beginning in the late 1990s. “There are plenty of permits out there and samples are sampled. The samples don’t just end up in museums,” she said.
The KU researcher and her co-authors propose to treat samples collected in the field just as other types of scientific data and use the open data model to ensure that scientists on museum samples for current and future research.
“We are proposing more open data requirements with journals, the integration of samples into existing requirements for data management plans and a cultural shift in biological sciences. That needs to be driven by -researchers, editors and reviewers as part of the solution, “Colella said.
She distinguishes between sample ideas of “ownership” and “stewardship.”
“Sample stewardship encourages the democratization of samples to increase their accessibility and research capacity through the use and reuse of sample resources to answer a number of scientific questions, rather than private ownership for use in a single project,” Colella said: “If samples are never archived by a museum, it is a loss to the whole scientific community. We say if you have private sample collections, there needs to be a plan to eventually deposit those samples, so if you are not around anymore or need someone else to deposit them, yes they know what to do. There must be a plan from the outset when the samples are collected. Stewardship ensures that the resources you collect are taken into account there is a future and a museum to do so. “