Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Disease Collections and How They Can Save the World

In 1976, a young Belgian scientist named Peter Piot received a small, inconspicuous -- and broken -- vial of blood taken from a sick patient in the region that is now known as Democratic Republic of Congo. The sample, which had traveled as a passenger’s hand luggage in an ice box, was treated to the same routine lab tests as other medical samples. What Piot found under the microscope, however, was anything but ordinary. The worm-like structure belonged to a virus that looked remarkably similar to the Marburg virus, which, barely a decade earlier in Europe, had killed seven people in one fell swoop. After a lengthy visit to Africa by Piot and his colleagues, and the deaths of nearly 300 people, the epidemic was stopped. The Ebola virus had taken its place in medicine as an emerging infectious disease.

Piot’s first encounter with the now infamous disease would have involved comparing the completely novel virus to known strains. Indeed, every time there is an outbreak, researchers return to a vast array of resources, including textbooks, known genome sequences, and physical disease strains for comparisons, inspirations, and clues. These strains are a part of scientific collections, or samples and specimens stored primarily for research purposes. While most people envision dinosaur bones or dried plant specimens, scientific collections actually encompass anything from biodiversity samples to bacteria cultures. Many research and policy institutions, such as museums or government agencies, hold repositories that provide unique assets for researchers. Groups like Scientific Collections International hope to connect the researchers to these resources.

Scientific Collections International, or SciColl, is a global consortium devoted to promoting the use, access, and awareness of scientific collections. The chair of SciColl, Dr. David Schindel at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., considers collections to be the “infrastructure, the backbone, and the physical facilities to do science.” The program developed out of a global need to create novel ways for integrating collections across disciplines.

“That led us to focus our discussions on the unanticipated uses of collections ... the off-label usage,” Schindel said.

He said SciColl’s four global research challenges - emerging diseases, environmental change, food security, and human migration - were chosen because of their importance to society and science. As a part of its research program, SciColl will hold a workshop on emerging diseases next month.

Like Piot, researchers today scour pathogen strain collections and museums to determine the origin and identity of the disease. Schindel pointed out the vital role collections play in tracking a disease.

“We could go back hundreds of years, thousands of years, and look for the origins of a disease in animals that would eventually find its way into the human population.”

Ultimately, the question is what (and where) the next outbreak will be. In an upcoming series of articles, we will analyze emerging diseases through the eyes of scientific collections, from how climate affects pathogens to following the government’s response to an epidemic. Follow along, as we go from ancient epidemics to future outbreaks and understand how scientific collections are at the heart of solving every disease mystery.


Brown, R. (2014, July 17). The virus detective who discovered Ebola in 1976. BBC News Magazine. Retrieved from


emerging diseases
Diseases that have appeared in a population for the first time, or that have existed previously but are rapidly increasing in incidence or geographic range.
scientific collections
Samples and specimens stored primarily for research purposes, including repositories of biomedical samples, human artifacts, natural history samples, and a variety of other objects of scientific study.


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