Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A Year in the Life of Scientific Collections

Fig.1. Scenes from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (Credit left to right: Neil Palmer/CIAT, 2011Mari Tefre/Global Crop Diversity Trust, 2008Dag Terje Filip Endresen/Svalbard Global Seed Vault, 2008)

Earlier this year, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) made a request to withdraw seeds from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which holds more than 850,000 samples from every country in the world. This request is the first of its kind for the “Doomsday Vault” that holds duplicate seed samples for national and international gene banks. The Syrian civil war forced ICARDA to move its headquarters from Aleppo, Syria, to Beirut, Lebanon, in 2012, and researchers managed to save 80 percent of the seed samples by sending them into storage at Svalbard.

Although such a withdrawal will allow ICARDA to regenerate these precious samples, it reveals the vulnerability of collections to war or even natural disasters. The year of 2015 marked a specific effort by individuals and organizations around the world to protect and sustain scientific collections, from those housed in natural history museums to frozen specimens in gene banks. We identified major trends that have affected both how collections are viewed in science and policy, as well as how they can be protected for generations to come. Read to learn more about what happened in the collections world this year, and what you should watch out for in 2016.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A Year in the Life of "Collections in the News"

Fig.1. SciColl secretariat is housed at the National Museum of Natural History in D.C.
Don DeBold, 2012

With 158 articles published and more than a year underway, Collections in the News has sought to raise awareness about ongoing research done with scientific collections. This year brought visitors from 95 countries to our blog who read about a disease detective at the National Museum of Natural History, stopped for their Monday morning coffee break each week, and had the chance to learn how microbes and mammoth bones teach us more about our world.

Some blog highlights for 2015 include article series on international efforts that work to protect the planet’s soils and address climate change problems. We also participated in GIF week with Deep Sea News and celebrated Thanksgiving with maize scientists. Read more below about these article series!

Friday, December 18, 2015

In the News: In A Galaxy Not So Far Away

Are you dreaming of a galaxy far, far away? These articles will bring you back to our solar system and our moon - not the Death Star - with news on digitizing the Apollo 11 Command Module, outer space amino acids, extreme underground microbes, and more:

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Dawn of Birds

Fig.1. A green-naped lorikeet, a little owl, an Adélie penguin, and a northern cardinal show only a fraction of the remarkable diversity of birds (Credit: Benjamint, 2009Trebol-a, 2011Reinhard Jahn, 2007; & Stephen Wolfe, 2011)

Around 65 million years ago, one of the largest mass extinction events in Earth’s history occurred. An estimated 75 percent of all species went extinct, from non-avian dinosaurs to types of mollusks, plankton, insects, and plants. With extinction, however, came the chance for animals like birds to diversify and expand into empty ecological niches in a process called adaptive radiation. Although the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event (K-Pg) may have enabled the rapid evolution of new species of birds, research published last Friday in the journal Science Advances suggests that birds have a much longer and more complicated history than previously thought.

Friday, December 11, 2015

In the News: Moby-Dick and the Future Seas

As the climate talks in Paris come to a close - and as we wrap up GIF week with Deep Sea News - we learn more about ancient and recent marine collections that might save our warming seas. This week, we read about a miniature "Moby-Dick" from ancient times, the future of the Mediterranean, citizen science efforts, and more:

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Bones of Coral Reefs

Fig.1. Coral depends upon algae for survival (Credit:via GIPHY)

In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, just off the small island of Kiritimati, corals are dying off at an astonishing rate. The small atoll, also called Christmas Island, suffers from high water temperatures caused by the current El Niño that have reached 4℃ above normal. Although these temperatures might be nice for a beachgoer, they do not bode well for the survival of the atoll’s extensive coral reefs.

Friday, December 4, 2015

In the News: Mammoths and Men

Fig.1. Mammoth skeleton at the George C. Page Museum
(Credit: Russ via Flickr, 2014)

Artifacts, sediment cores, and mammoth bones all connect us to ancient history, either through culture or the natural world. This week in the news, we read about how to examine the past using old collections in new ways:

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Of Ice and Insects

Fig.1. Greenland Ice Sheet (Credit: Christine Zenino, 2009)

Researchers at Stockholm University, Plymouth University, and the Natural History Museum, London (NHM) may have solved one of the most enduring puzzles from the last Ice Age. Around 12,880 years ago, the Northern Hemisphere experienced a sharp change in temperatures that culminated in a decrease of about 5℃ over 400 years. This event, called the Younger Dryas, is well documented in environmental records, but the cause had been largely unknown. In a study recently published in the journal Nature Communications, the researchers brought together three types of collections to address this mystery.

Friday, November 27, 2015

In the News: Return to the Wild Crops

Fig.1. Wild turkeys in Oklahoma (Credit: Larry Smith via Flickr, 2015)

For this Thanksgiving, researchers are turning to wild animal and crop relatives to improve biodiversity. From smartphones to frozen seeds, read more about how new technology will preserve agriculture in a warming world: 

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Be Thankful for Pumpkins

(Credit: Ginny via Flickr, 2008)

As families around the United States begin their Thanksgiving feast, they should be particularly grateful for the pumpkin. According to a study published last week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, this beloved squash survived extinction only through domestication by humans thousands of years ago.

Friday, November 20, 2015

In the News: Bones of Blue Whales

Fig.1. Blue whale from above
Credit: NOAA Fisheries, 2007)

What happens when a blue whale washes up on shore? This week in the news, scientists and students had the chance of a lifetime to study rare animals from around the world, from blue whales in Oregon to mysterious arachnids near the Dead Sea.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Mystery of European Ancestry

Fig.1.  DNA was extracted from molar teeth of this skeleton dating almost
10,000 years ago, found in Western Georgia (
Credit: Eppie Jones)

Between 4,800 and 5,000 years ago, nomadic herders swept through Europe from the vast steppe in modern-day Russia and Ukraine. These herders, part of the Yamnaya culture, made up one of three ancestral populations that formed the genetic structure of contemporary European populations. Yet findings published on Monday in the journal Nature Communications provide new details to this history and suggest that a previously unknown “fourth strand” of ancient European ancestry existed.

Friday, November 13, 2015

In the News: Around the World and Back in Time

Fig.1. Charles Darwin in 1868 (Credit: Julia Margaret Cameron, 1868)

Instead of sailing to the other side of the world like Darwin, modern evolutionary biologists can scope collections for insight into ancient changes. Online digitized records, hands-on staining, and teeth hidden in collections are being used to rewrite the evolutionary history of animals:

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Teosinte Today, Maize Tomorrow

Fig.1. This photo, published in 1919, shows the stages between a simple spike of Euchlaena mexicana and an ear of maize. (Credit: Journal of Agriculture)

Jeffrey Ross-Ibarra, associate professor and section chair of the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of California at Davis, and his team study maize and teosinte evolution. Researchers and post-docs - with backgrounds in plant biology and population biology and integrated genetics and genomics - focus on various research areas, such as genetics and genomics, how human and environmental factors have affected the adaptation and domestication of crops and more.

“Domestication (of the crop) has always struck me as a really exciting story because it’s a case where the evolution of the plant was directed by, or affected by, humans,” Ross-Ibarra said about how he became interested in maize and teosinte research.

Friday, November 6, 2015

In the News: The Terror of the Midwest

Fig.1. Artist illustration of Dakotaraptor steini, DePalma et al 2015
Credit: Emily Willoughby, 2015

The recently described Dakotaraptor, found in the Hell Creek Formation of South Dakota, is only one of several species in the news this week who give a glimpse into ancient history. Read to learn about a baby Pentaceratops, fire-frogs, sea urchins, and more!

Thursday, November 5, 2015

C. Miguel Pinto, the Disease Detective

Fig.1. Red Queen lecturing Alice (Credit: John Tenniel, 1871)

“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place,”
- Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass

In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Alice once again finds herself in a fantastical world. A chess piece called the Red Queen describes the rules of the Looking-Glass land, claiming that no matter how far Alice runs, the girl will stay in the same place. Evolutionary biologist Leigh Van Valen adopted this story in 1973 to illustrate the concept of an evolutionary arms race in which species must constantly evolve to remain extant. In symbiotic relationships, like that of parasites and hosts, an adaptation in one will affect the other. Therefore these organisms continually evolve, or “run,” to counter pressures posed by the opposite in order to survive.

This type of relationship fascinates C. Miguel Pinto, a George E. Burch and Peter Buck Postdoctoral Fellow at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). He explores the evolutionary underpinnings of mammals and the parasites they hold. In particular, Pinto studies Trypanosoma parasites in bats.

Friday, October 30, 2015

In the News: The Creepy and the Curious

Fig.1. Dermestid beetles on a skull (Credit: Josh More via Flickr, 2014)

From parasite collections to ship graveyards, creepy and curious science is featured in this week's news. Read to learn about the importance of flesh-eating beetles to natural history museums, the sheer diversity of spider species, worms that look like vermicelli, and more:

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Striking Gold (Teeth) with Ancient Plague DNA

Fig.1. Scanning electron micrograph of Yersinia pestis bacteria mass in foregut of a flea
(Credit: Rocky Mountain Laboratories, NIAID, 2010)

Since the beginning of the year, fifteen people in the United States have been infected with the bubonic plague, and four of those individuals have died. This disease, often only mentioned in context of the Black Death (1346-1353 AD) or the Justinian Plague (541-542 AD), still exists today in pockets around the world. The causative pathogen Yersinia pestis hides in natural reservoirs, such as black-tailed prairie dogs in the southwestern United States or marmots in the Eurasian Steppe, only to flare up in human populations when rodents and the fleas they carry get too close.

Despite the deadly history of the disease - the Black Death killed an estimated 60 percent of the European population - Y. pestis evolved from a much less virulent ancestor that caused symptoms closer to the common cold. Previous research pinpointed the first appearance of this bacterium in skeletal remains at 1,500 years ago, but a study released last week in the journal Cell pushes that date back to more than 5,000 years ago.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Scientific Collections in Disease Response

One year ago, some of the world's leading minds in emerging infectious disease research met at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History to discuss the role of scientific collections in disease response. Scientific Collections International (SciColl) brought people together from different disciplines and across various collections to create connections and spread ideas. Read to learn more about how collections are placed in a larger dialogue about disease research and response:

Workshop Report

Press Release 

Monday Morning Coffee Break: Oct. 26


Friday, October 23, 2015

In the News: Beautiful Biodiversity

Fig.1. Psychrolutes marcidus, otherwise known as the blobfish
Credit: Kinskarije via Flickr

The blobfish, seductive monkeys, and sea snakes are only some of the unusual museum specimens in the news this week. Read to learn about how to catalog and protect these amazing (if not quite beautiful) animals:

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The woman with the (specimen) solution

After nearly three decades with the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, Elaine Gunter was looking for a change. Since 1978, her role in the central laboratory for the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey included designing specimen collections for various field studies, managing personnel, and developing assays.

In 2001, she was promoted to a the deputy director position of the Division of Laboratory Sciences at CDC. While working in the management and operations realm, she found she was dealing with the “suits” of Washington, D.C., who were trying to run science agencies as a business.

That’s when she took the leap.

Friday, October 16, 2015

In the News: A Celebration of Bones

Fig.1 chalicothere in a Miocene grassland
Credit: National Fossil Day™ 2015)

In honor of National Fossil Day this week, learn about exciting finds in paleontology and paleoanthropology. From human migration to climate change, these bones open a new window into ancient history:

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Ancient DNA and a History of Human Migration

Fig.1. Members of the Ari tribe in modern southwest Ethiopia are probably direct
 descendants of the Mota man (Credit: Carsten ten Brink via Flickr)

Around 60,000 to 100,000 years ago, modern humans migrated out of Africa and proceeded to populate every corner of the world. Although ancient DNA analyses have added complexity to the routes of human migration, from Neolithic farmers to early hunter-gatherers in Europe, the birthplace of humanity has remained elusive. Among other challenges, regional hot temperatures that quickly degrade genetic material barred ancient African remains from such studies. However, in research published last week in the journal Science, a skeleton found in a remote cave in Ethiopia produced Africa’s first ancient human genome.

Friday, October 9, 2015

In the News: Heart Valves and Human Migration

Fig.1. Frogs around the world are going extinct (Credit: Theodore Scott via Flickr)

Frog collections, iconic trees, and heart valves take center stage in the news this week. These unique collections help to elucidate the origins of human culture, preserve genetic material, protect biodiversity, and much more:

Thursday, October 8, 2015

A Brief History of Malaria

Fig.1. Tu Youyou (right) and tutor Lou Zhicen in 1950s (Credit: Xinhua News Agency

In 1967, Mao Zedong held a meeting in Beijing to discuss the major problem of drug-resistant malaria affecting soldiers on the front lines of the Vietnam War. Efforts in the United States resulted in the discovery of the drug mefloquine, but the North Vietnamese turned to China for aid. A program was formed that involved more than 500 scientists from around China to develop effective antimalarial medication. Among those scientists was Tu Youyou, a pharmacologist who is now a 2015 Nobel Prize recipient in Physiology or Medicine for her work in drug development.

Friday, October 2, 2015

In the News: Museum Closure

Fig.1. The Illinois State Museum is closed to the public
 (Credit: Mike Linksvayer via Flickr)

The closure of a top natural history museum, a withdrawal from the ‘doomsday’ vault, and the arrival of a huge dinosaur skeleton herald major changes underway for these top research institutions and museums around the world:

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Old Blood and New Science

Fig.1. This Asian tiger mosquito (Aedes albopicts) can carry dangerous emerging diseases (Credit: James Gathany, CDC)

Little over a year ago, the first locally acquired case of the mosquito-borne disease chikungunya appeared in the continental United States. This virus had only been recognized seven months prior in the Western Hemisphere, but quickly joined diseases such as Ebola and hantavirus on the ever-growing list of emerging infectious diseases.

Friday, September 25, 2015

In the News: Filter-Feeders and Whale Drones

Fig.1. This basking shark is one of several species that independently evolved the ability to filter feed (Credit: Greg Skormal/NOAA Fisheries Service, 2011)

Breathalyzer tests for whales and climate change-fighting sea creatures are part of ongoing research in marine animal science. Read to learn more about checking the health of whales, the unusual octopus genome, plankton-feeding sharks, and more!

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Fire and Ice in the Sierra Nevada

Fig.1. A view of Half Dome in the Sierra Nevada (Credit: Dimitry B. via Flickr, 2013)

Earlier this year, California Gov. Jerry Brown issued water restrictions for first time ever in the state’s history, mandating that urban water suppliers cut their use by 25 percent. This measure addressed California’s ongoing drought, which has entered its fourth year and contributed to deadly wildfires and billions lost in agriculture. A new study published in Nature Climate Change suggests that this record-breaking streak may stretch back far more than a few years ago.

Friday, September 18, 2015

In the News: Virus Swarms and a (New) Paelo Diet

Fig.1. Child receiving polio vaccine (Credit: USAID Bangladesh)
"Mutant viral swarms," heirloom culture collections, and stone tools from 32,000 years ago are all in the science news this week. Read more to learn how emerging viral diseases and food security are studied using novel approaches to scientific collections:

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

How to Adapt to Climate Change

Fig.1. This canid evolved from mongoose-like ancestors (Credit: Tambako via Flickr, 2014)

Around 23 million years ago, Earth’s climate cooled considerably, causing a shift in North America’s interior ecosystems. Forests turned into the drier, more open grasslands that remain today. As climate change affected the landscape, animals and plants adjusted to their new surroundings. The fossil record indicates that herbivorous mammals evolved longer legs and teeth more adapted to the increasingly ubiquitous C4 grasses. Although a similar adjustment had not been previously seen in predators, an international team of scientists discovered a link between modern canine hunting habits and the ancient shift in climate.

Friday, September 11, 2015

In the News: A New Member of the Family

Fig.1. Left and right view of a hand of Homo naledi, a recently discovered species of extinct hominin found in South Africa (Credit: Lee Roger Berger research team, 2015)

From bones hidden in the depths of a South African cave to century-old mold, these scientific discoveries change our understanding of human evolution and disease. Read to learn more about a new hominin, trade and caffeine, tracking diseases, and more:

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Happy Birthday, Collections in the News!

One year ago today, Collections in the News published its first article about ongoing research regarding collections and how they can tell us more about the world. To celebrate, here are our top five most viewed and shared articles from the past year:  

Collection Spotlight: NMNH Vertebrate Paleontology 

We learned about preserving fossils for future researchers and museum visitors, thanks to Dr. Hans-Dieter Sues, curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

Microbes and Middle Schools 

Dr. Julia Stevens at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences told us why teaching middle school students about soil microbiology is important for the future of science. 
New technologies were applied to old history in Dr. Loren Sackett’s work with wildlife diseases that cross over into humans.

“Evil Twin” of Climate Change

Ocean acidification is an ongoing threat to sea life and is only part of how climate change will affect our world, but information from sediment cores may help us to mitigate the problem.

Smallpox, Now Online! 

In an age where digitizing collections are the norm, we talked about how the question of open-access data is at the forefront of biosecurity.

Friday, September 4, 2015

In the News: Birds of a Feather

Fig.1. House Finch-eggs (Credit: Rich Mooney via Flickr, 2005)

Between Victorian egg collecting and modern day plastic production, humans have endangered bird populations around the world. Living collections and dried specimens found in museums help us to paint a picture of both their ancient relationship with people and future survival:

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The End of the World, 252 Million Years Ago

Fig.1. This trilobite was part of an important class of extinct animals that one ruled the seas (Credit: Kevin Walsh, 2005 via Flickr

Have you ever wondered about the curious creatures behind #trilobitetuesday? These marine arthropods roamed the oceans for over 270 million years and are widely considered to be among the most successful of early animals. Trilobites are well preserved and make up a large number of marine invertebrate fossil collections, informing on research in fields as wide ranging as evolutionary biology to plate tectonics. They ultimately went extinct at the end of the Permian period around 252 million years ago - along with more than 90 percent of ocean species and 75 percent of land species - during the most massive extinction event in the paleontological record. Although causes have been attributed to anything from asteroids to sea-floor methane, a recently published paper in Science Advances argues that volcanic activity catalyzed the catastrophic Permian-Triassic extinction event.

Friday, August 28, 2015

In the News: Collecting for Disasters

Fig.1. A planned biobank for samples from Ebola patients could bolster African science and aid in global health efforts (Credit: CDC/Cynthia Goldsmith, via PHIL)

How far would you go to collect? When it comes to studying a nuclear disaster, a deadly disease, or even unreachable plants, these scientists come up with clever ways to take samples. Such collections help in global health and environmental efforts that work to protect our world:

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Ancient Giants in Warmer Times

Fig.1. Woolly Mammoth at the Royal BC Museum, Victoria, British Columbia (Credit: Tracy O via Flickr)

Between 40,000 to 10,000 years ago, the world experienced a mass extinction of megafauna, a diverse group of animals that included such members as the mastodon and the woolly rhino. Although humans are often blamed for the disappearance of these creatures - either through overkill or habitat modification - the underlying causes are more complicated than previously thought