Looking back on the year of science | Tim Littlewood, Executive Director of Science

One of the key aims of creating the Natural History Museum at Harwell is to expand and accelerate the science we do and enable. Whether this is by digitising our collections to make them easier to discover, opening them up to more researchers and wider audiences than ever before, developing new technologies and facilities to uncover new information about the natural world, or delivering innovative research that revolutionises our understanding of biodiversity, nature, and the future of life on Earth. Our ambitions are big. As such, I thought a great way to round out the year would be to look back at some of the huge achievements of scientists and their collaborators across the Museum in 2021.

From ancient humans to tools for biodiversity monitoring and with pit stops via genome sequencing, this is only a snapshot of the hundreds of papers, new species descriptions, policy contributions and funding awards that have been achieved this year. Enjoy!

1. Linking whale earwax and environmental change

The long lifespans of baleen whales mean that they can be important indicators of change in marine ecosystems. As increasing terrestrial and marine activities are altering ocean systems, this can impact foraging and feeding behaviour of these species. Richard Sabin (Principal Curator, Mammals) collaborated on an analysis of the earplugs (earwax) of Blue, Fin and Humpback whales. These earplugs are deposited in layers as whales age. The research team looked at how levels of stable isotopes for δ13C and δ15N had changed since the 1930s. These measures can be associated with primary productivity e.g. the uptake of carbon dioxide, and nitrogen release in the atmosphere respectively. Abrupt shifts may indicate behaviour changes such as choosing new foraging locations or food sources in response to natural or human-related disturbances. Most of the whales showed long-term declining trends in δ13C profiles that may be linked to fossil fuel combustion (this form of carbon is depleted in fossil-fuel derived CO2, referred to as the Suess effect). However, even when taking this into account, the study still indicated a significant decline in δ13C values suggesting other factors potentially influencing behaviour were also affecting these individuals.

Full paper

2. Evidence to the Dasgupta Review

Professor Andy Purvis and Dr Adriana De Palma were part of the team that brought together a new report on biodiversity action as evidence to the Dasgupta Review – an independent, global review on the economics of biodiversity led by Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta, University of Cambridge, commissioned by the UK Government. The report compared the cost to the world’s governments of two differing scenarios for achieving biodiversity conservation goals by 2050 – acting now or putting action off for a decade. They concluded that delaying action will make strategies twice as expensive to implement and that a delay of ten years will make it infeasible to stabilise biodiversity globally, even at today’s depleted level, by 2050. Clearly, we need to act now to protect nature.

Full report ‘The Urgency of Biodiversity Action’, including policy recommendations

The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review

3. Uncovering the Winchcombe meteorite

Many of you will have heard about the exciting recovery of the Winchcombe meteorite in March, which we are now lucky enough to have on display in the The Vault in the Museum at South Kensington. After three days of searching by a crack team of specialists, including Museum scientists, they were rewarded with one of the rarest and most scientifically important meteorite types – a carbonaceous chondrite – one of the most primitive materials in the solar system. It was retrieved in such good condition, so quickly after its fall, that it is comparable to the samples returned from space missions, both in quality and quantity. Since collecting the meteorite intensive research has begun to characterise the samples and uncover key clues about the origins of Earth and the solar system.

4. Finding human ancestors

Colleagues in the Centre for Human Evolution research (CHER) are often at the cutting edge of new stories about our ancient origins. Professor Chris Stringer focussed attention on the puzzle of the Denisovans, ancient hominins that are part of the network of human ancestors. The research team wanted to investigate whether interbreeding had occurred in Island Southeast Asia between ancient humans such as Homo erectus, Homo floresiensis and Homo luzonensis, for which fossil records have been found in the area, and Denisovans, which are currently only known almost exclusively from DNA records. The team examined the genomes of more than 400 modern humans and found no evidence of interbreeding between modern humans and the ancient humans in the fossil records in the region, but again found high-levels of Denisovan DNA in the modern populations. The mystery therefore remains, with future research looking at either re-evaluation of the current fossil record or an exciting new discovery to come… watch this space.

Full paper

5. Sequencing mammal genomes

Reference genomes – a representative example of the set of genes in one individual organism of a species – are essential to understanding and action in areas ranging from disease to biodiversity conservation, but few are available for non-microbial species. Dr Mark Wilkinson is part of the international Genome 10K (G10K) consortium that has worked for five years to develop new methods for assembling reference genomes, and a new paper explored their work on 16 species from six major vertebrate lineages. This work is now the basis for the new Vertebrate Genomes Project (VGP), which aims to generate complete reference genomes for all 70,000 vertebrate species on the planet. This will provide vital information about the genetic diversity of species and whether this puts them at lesser or greater risk of extinction, and enable a new era of discovery across the life sciences.

Full paper

6. Making the case for the green revolution

The green energy revolution is heavily reliant on raw materials such as cobalt and lithium, which are currently mainly sourced from mining. Professor Richard Herrington wrote an insightful commentary for Nature Reviews Materials on future supplies for green technologies. To switch the UK’s fleet of 31.5 million internal combustion engine vehicles to battery-electric vehicles would take an estimated 207,900 tonnes of cobalt, 264,600 tonnes of lithium carbonate, 7,200 tonnes of neodymium and dysprosium and 2,362,500 tonnes of copper. This is twice the current annual world production of cobalt, an entire year’s world production of neodymium and three quarters of the world production of lithium. To do the same worldwide would need forty times these amounts –  we are a long way off. Even if we achieve a circular economy as soon as possible and reuse and recycle wherever feasible, we will likely still need newly mined resources in the short-term. Natural History Museum research will continue to contribute to decision-making and evaluation of supplies for a green economy to ensure it benefits both people and planet.

Full paper

7. 4 billion plastic particles on remote island

Plastics are an environmental threat; however, their fate once in the oceans is poorly known. Dr Alex Bond and collaborators compared results from assessments of floating plastics in the South Pacific Ocean with accumulated beach plastics from the uninhabited and isolated Henderson Island. They found that microplastics had increased by an order of magnitude from 2.1 g/m2 in 2015 to 23.4 g/m2 in 2019 – for the whole beach >4 billion plastic particles in the upper 5cm of sand. There were also differences between the size classes of beach and ocean plastics. This has raised significant concerns on possible impacts on nearshore filter feeding animals which would be likely to ingest these small particles.

Full paper

8. Complex crocs

Dr Ryan Felice and Professor Anjali Goswami worked on the evolution of the crocodyliform skull, which appears to show little diversity in modern species. Using advanced morphometrics, they found that the pace of cranial evolution in ancient groups was initially high (with herbivorous and marine forms showing diverse skull structure and function), then slowed for a period before rapid evolution in crown-group crocodiles (the most recent common ancestors of modern crocodiles). So although modern crocodiles have similar skull form and function, they showed that they have actually experienced high rates of evolution with rapid fluctuation and variability. In particular, structures related to jaw closing and bite force are highly variable. This illustrates that although the form of these skulls may appear conservative it hides unappreciated macroevolutionary complexity.

Full paper

9. Neglected Tropical Disease: Hookworms

DeWorm3 is a significant international programme, led by the Natural History Museum, looking at the elimination and control of soil-transmitted helminth (STH) worms. STH are a public health problem in most developing countries and are responsible for malnutrition, anaemia, low birth weight, cognitive impairment, decrease of school performance, and subsequently economic loss. Collaborators and I carried out a study of baseline prevalence data in Benin where they have implemented mass drug administration campaigns targeted at school children. We found that while school deworming campaigns decreased STH prevalence, there is a persistent reservoir of infection in adults and pre-school aged children. This indicates that to eliminate STH successfully the Benin national programme needs to increase its target population to the whole community. The future results of Deworm3 will demonstrate whether this goal is achievable.

Full paper

10. Tracking global change: mollusc baselines

Using fossil collections Dr Katie Collins and collaborators investigated the deep time effects of climate change on mollusc biodiversity and biogeography. Fossils from New Zealand over 40 million years ago were used to determine how ocean temperatures influence species richness and functional redundancy, a measure of how many species fill similar ecological roles within an ecosystem. The research found that during warmer periods the number of species in an area and the functional redundancy increased, potentially increasing ecosystem resilience. This work is an important baseline in understanding how present human-induced changes are affecting biodiversity.

Full paper

11. Biodiversity Trends Explorer

Ahead of COP15 and COP26 we launched the Biodiversity Trends Explorer to help negotiators and other policymakers compare the state of local ecosystem biodiversity among countries, as well as the impacts of different economic futures on nature. The tool utilises Biodiversity Intactness Index data, a rigorous metric developed by Museum researchers and underpinned by the Museum’s PREDICTS database – a global, open database (which can be downloaded from the Museum’s data portal), which now comprises 4.7 million data points, from over 41,000 sites in over 100 countries – a taxonomically representative set of 58,000 plant, animal and fungal species. The digital tool makes this data easy to find, understand, visualise, filter and download for anyone who wishes to use it, allowing users to track modelled biodiversity changes since 2000 – globally, nationally and regionally. Analyses of the UK using the tool, revealed that with an average of only 53% of its biodiversity left the UK is in the bottom 10% of the world’s countries for biodiversity. Globally, we have crashed through the ‘safe limit’ of biodiversity loss and we need ambitious, coordinated action to reverse this.

12. Early Cambrian Bryozoans

Last but not least! Bryozoans! Bryozoans (also known as moss animals) are a group of aquatic, predominantly fixed, colonial filter-feeders with calcareous or organic exoskeletons. Whilst the DNA of six major groups of bryozoans have strongly linked them to a Cambrian origin (541 million years ago – 485.4 million years ago), there are few fossils to support this, leaving a conundrum for researchers. The oldest fossils of bryozoans have previously been dated to the Ordovician period around 480 million years ago – about 50 million years later than most other animal groups first emerged. Dr Paul Taylor and colleagues looked at the early Cambrian fossil Protomelission gatehousei from Australia and South China and found it had a ‘honeycomb-like network’ unlike any kind of fossil found in the Cambrian, but similar to some other bryozoans found later in the fossil record. It also had some major differences that set it apart from modern species. This suggests that Protomelission gatehousei is probably a close relative of modern bryozoans and provides strong evidence to align the origin of the group with all other skeletonized organisms in the Cambrian.

Full paper


Coming up

2022 will be an exciting year for the Natural History Museum at Harwell programme so I encourage you to join us on this journey – you can sign-up for the bimonthly newsletter on our website to receive information on the programme, collections closures, secondment and job opportunities and science news, or follow @NHM_Harwell on Twitter and LinkedIn. We will be getting our first glimpse of what the centre will look like and see further progress in the planning of the vast relocation of specimens across our sites and to the new centre. We will also be continuing to engage with our collections’ users, collaborators and partners to ensure the centre is built with users in mind and to develop new partnerships to deliver solutions for nature.

Until next year, happy holidays!

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