Specimens to Solutions: A Glimpse into Collections and Research | Kathryn Gibbons, Scientific Partnerships Manager

Many of us associate the Natural History Museum at South Kensington with Hope the Whale, Dippy the Diplodocus and other inspiring exhibitions and stories about the natural world – but did you know that behind the scenes of this iconic building there are 300 scientists and 200 postgraduate students publishing over 500 scientific papers annually? That there are leading laboratories with technical experts imaging, analysing and preserving life on earth? Or that we are working towards digitising all 80 million specimens housed in the museum’s invaluable collection stores (less than 1% of collections are on display) to further open them up for research?

A multitude of scientific questions are being investigated. From the study of DNA and the evolution of plants and animals, to building a ‘biobank’ of life on earth, or delivering consulting services on the NASA Mars rover expedition, sustainable exploration and development of critical minerals, or genomic sequencing to support environmental and biodiversity monitoring.

Central to the museum’s vision is ‘transforming the study of the natural world’. This means increasing access to our collections through digitisation and building on the wealth of data contained within them – locations and distribution, species descriptions, molecular scale analysis and DNA coding – that can inform and progress solutions to global challenges.

A vital part of this depends on continuing to build and grow new research partnerships, through collaboration and networking with other scientists and research institutions. Building a new Natural History Museum hub at Harwell Campus is a fantastic opportunity to form new research partnerships across diverse disciplines.

On 16th February we hosted our first Harwell Connect Event at the MRC Advance Training Centre on campus to provide a glimpse into the breadth of expertise at the Museum. Colleagues discussed everything from the diversity of bryozoans, CT scanning and neutron beam analysis of fossil invertebrates, metadata analysis for understanding biodiversity trends, molecular lab facilities for genomic sequencing and creating a UK National Biodiversity Biobank. Here’s a taster…

Looking at life through the lenses of evolutionary trees (Dr Andrea Waeschenbach, Principal Researcher)

Andrea uses a holistic approach to look at the evolution of Bryozoa and the drivers of biodiversity change by integrating fossils into evolutionary trees built using next-generation sequencing data. Much of her work involves the collection of fresh specimens. These are studied for their morphology as well as their DNA, which frequently leads to the discovery of new species. Furthermore, specimens are digitised and recorded in the museum’s collections and are thereby made available for future study. Bryozoans harbor a range of different natural products such as alkaloids, lactones, ceramides and sterols, with potential biomedical applications for cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, anti-viral and anti-parasitic treatments. Although not currently an active part of her research, Andrea is keen to collaborate with interested researchers on the characterization of natural products.

Using specimen metadata to study global change and more (Dr Natalie Cooper, Principal Researcher)

Natalie analyses specimen metadata – i.e., information on where, when, and who specimens were collected by – to monitor population changes to understand global biodiversity trends in populations. She is also interested in using specimens in novel ways, for example using stable isotopes (carbon and nitrogen) from our blue whale Hope’s baleen (keratin, the same protein that makes up our fingernails and hair), to determine where Hope moved in the last years of her life.

A virtual world of palaeontology (Dr Imran Rahman, Principal Researcher)

Imran discussed the insight that can be gained into the evolution of ammonites, sea urchins and other invertebrates through the combined lens of Computerised Tomography (CTscan) and neutron beam analysis. More insight into a recent study is here.

Genomic solutions for biomedical, biodiversity and conservation (Dr Raju Misra, Head of Molecular Biology Labs and Darren Chooneea, Senior Molecular Biologist)

Raju and Darren from the NHM Molecular Biology Labs provide a complete end to end infrastructure, hardware and knowhow for DNA sequencing and analysis across a wide range of applications from the study of ancient DNA, environmental monitoring and biodiversity, food quality and safety, public health monitoring and diagnostics, through to eDNA ecosystem studies of air, water, soil for green mining.

A new national UK biodiversity biobank (Jacqueline Mackenzie-Dodds – Molecular Collections Facility Manager; Aidan Emery, Principal Researcher and Culture Facility Manager; Kirsty Lloyd, Technician, BBSRC Cryoarks)

The NHM maintains a repository ‘biobank’ for samples across the plant and animal kingdoms to collect and preserve a wide range of material (tissue, DNA etc) that is used to study biodiversity, evolutionary trends, disease and more.

It was brilliant to see the event resulted in many fruitful conversations and sparked interest amongst the community in learning more about the Museum’s research and laboratory facilities, including many ideas for collaboration around the development and testing of analytical techniques.

This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the scientific research at the Museum and a step towards building new relationships and partnerships that build on our capabilities and expertise. Partnerships are essential to uncover innovative scientific solutions that will ultimately help us to inform both UK government policy and future decision makers on the biodiversity and climate challenges we face.

To find out more about the Natural History Museum at Harwell and to sign-up for email updates, including information on collections closures, visit our website . If you enjoyed this blog, why not share with your networks or on social media? You can also follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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