Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Collecting for the future

In 1993, an unexplained pulmonary illness occurred in the Four Corners area of the southwestern United States, killing otherwise young and physically fit people. Virologists from the Centers of Disease Control established the disease as a novel hantavirus which had a natural reservoir in the deer mouse. In an effort to locate the origin of the virus, researchers studied frozen tissue samples from people who had died of unexplained lung problems. Several samples from 1978 contained the hantavirus, proving that this virus had been around earlier but had been unrecognized. Over the next two decades, 40 more types of hantavirus have appeared in the Americas, most of which affect humans and have rodents or other mammals as natural reservoirs.

Fig.1. This cute, little deer mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus) is a natural reservoir for the Sin Nombre virus, the hantavirus which swept through Four Corners area in 1993. (Seney Natural History Association, 2013).

Dr. Joseph Cook, a professor and the Curator of Mammals at the Museum of Southwestern Biology, described this case study to the participants of SciColl’s recent workshop. He pointed out that the collectors of the 1978 frozen tissue samples did not know their collection would be an important resource for disease outbreak research 15 years later. This message, echoed by other participants, exemplifies why a new collecting culture is an important step in the continued growth of collections. This type of sampling means collecting specimens that are georeferenced, time stamped, and integrated into a “geographically extensive, site intensive, and temporally broad collection.”

Holistic sampling

In addition to focusing on broader collection events, Cook also argued that specimens within different collections should be connected. For example, parasites found within collected specimens should be catalogued with notes on their host. This type of collecting is becoming more standard within museums, but not all physical tissue samples are connected digitally to additional data, such as genome sequences. Simply put, samples are far more powerful tools to answer new questions when they are part of an interconnected scientific resource base which can trace a specimen from its original collection to its derived data.  

A difficult aspect of holistic sampling is the creation of a sustainable system. As a recent article by a botanical curator at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History argues, collections-based science is losing funding and support. Workshop participants called for sustainable collecting systems, which not only showcase the unusual specimens but also givs a good representation of diversity (or lack thereof) for an area. Systems such as GenBank, an open-access tool for the NIH genetic sequence collection, can help overcome this burden by connecting collections and expanding resources for genomic research.

Usable databases

A critical component of thorough sampling is access to an online database for collections. One good example is ARCTOS, a collection management system which integrates diverse collections and data from the Museum of Southwestern Biology and collaborating institutions. This database links specimens to information on collection location and time, publications, storage, and other variables. ARCTOS can accommodate data collected during holistic sampling within an informative system. 

SciColl works with GRBio, the Global Registry of Biodiversity Repositories, which is an online database of biological collections in natural history museums and other biorepositories. Databases like GRBio work to connect researchers to collections managers, increasing awareness and accessibility of collections.

Museums depend on such databases to disperse information about their collections and specimens across disciplinary and institutional boundaries. They are essential in this digital age. Online databases are vital for keeping integrated collections, which are accessible for research and education.

Collaboration and the future of museums

Ultimately, how do we create a sustainable home for thorough collections? In order to “collect smart,” we must be proactive in collecting and in viewing collections. Workshop participants had the following advice:

  • Collaborate across disciplines and between institutions
  • Hold meetings, such as the recent SciColl-HHS workshop, to bring together experts who would otherwise not be in contact
  • Maintain holistic specimens and sustainable infrastructure
  • Create online, accessible databases for information management

Collections are an investment for the future. Current research within biorepositories spans from biodiversity studies and taxonomic analyses to disease surveillance and monitoring. Like the 1978 samples in the Museum of Southwestern Biology, we will never be able to predict every use for our specimens. We can, however, maintain viable collections that are sustainable and will adapt to our future needs.

Funk, V.A. (2014, October). The Erosion of Collections-Based Science: Alarming Trend or Coincidence? [Web log comment]. Retrieved from

Seney Natural History Association. (2013). Deer Mouse, Peromyscus maniculatus [Photo], Retrieved Nov 4, 2014, from:

Tracking a Mystery Disease: The Detailed Story of Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS). (2013, August 29). In Centers for Disease Control and Prevention online. Retrieved from


The NIH genetic sequence database with publicly available DNA sequences.

1 comment :

  1. Hi...
    There are four basic kinds of collectors. They are the reader, the collector, the investor and the speculator. They all have differences but the bottom line is they all like to collect and read comic books.
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