How to organise a collection of UK wildlife body parts

Samantha Luciano, a second-year student of the MSc Biobanks & Complex Data Management of the Côte d’Azur University in France, had the chance to push open the doors of the Molecular Collection Facility (MCF) at the Natural History Museum in London and to join their team for a six-months internship.

She tells us about her mammoth task to organise UK wildlife samples collected by the passionate naturalist and vet, Vic Simpson.

A collection not born yesterday

In his retirement, the naturalist and vet Vic Simpson (1941-2018) created the Wildlife Veterinary Investigation Centre (WVIC) in his back-yard outbuilding!

Here, he carried out extensive post-mortem examinations, studied the impact of disease on wildlife and collected a wealth of data and sample archives.

When Vic Simpson passed away, his wife Jane donated these samples to the Museum, with the aim of perpetuating her husband’s work and allowing researchers to benefit from his findings.

Frozen samples from bats, small and large mammals and birds from his collection were added to the MCF’s freezers, as well as histological slides and wax blocks.

Vic Simpson has done an enormous amount of work over the years, both in carrying out hundreds of dissections and specimen preparations and in maintaining detailed data on these specimens.

A large collection means a lot of organisation

The mission? To know exactly what these freezers are full of, to make an inventory, to count, to associate the data accumulated over the years, to cross-reference the samples with the numerous collections of the other departments of the Museum, to sort, to organise, to store in the best possible conditions to be able to share these pieces that will be used for many years of research.

The MCF’s freezers are full of animal tissues such as kidneys and livers sections, spleens and hearts, but also fluids such as blood, aqueous humour and even urine.

Vic Simpson weighed, measured, observed, catalogued, preserved and protected all these small animal parts in a rigorous manner. Now that his legacy has been passed on, it is our duty to continue this work. But then, where to start with all those bags?

Count, sort and organise

The frozen samples were sorted and counted in different categories: tubes (small, medium, large), bags and other formats like pots and jars.

The aim was to make an inventory of the contents of the freezers in order to provide suitable containers and to store them in a traceable way. For example, 313 small tubes from bats were able to go from being stored in bulk without traceability, to being stored in long-storage boxes where labels with unique identifiers were assigned to each one and the data was linked.

Now we know exactly where a specific tube is and what it contains, without having to open the freezer and jeopardise the preservation of other samples.

In the Lion’s Mane Jellyfish freezer (yes, freezers have cute names), on shelf 1, rack 1, drawer 1, box position 1, box MCFCA615E0156 and well 62 we can find a 2mL fox blood sample with the unique barcode MCFCA615E0189! What a progress, no?

Samples of a different kind

The collections found in natural history museums are not quite ordinary biobank collections. There are both frozen and formalin-preserved samples, mounted specimens, skeletons, feathers and hairs… as well as histological slides.

And Vic Simpson has donated a large number of them: 1356! Each of his slides was reviewed and, where possible, matched with a specimen that has been transferred to the Museum’s traditional collections.

A box of slides with the descriptions of the slides
Vic Simpson’s slides were kept in bulk and neatly catalogued, associated with the data and kept in specific boxes. They will be forwarded to various departments in the Museum, e.g. mammals and parasites, for long-term storage.

Future missions

In order to continue the work established by Vic Simpson over many years and to make it part of the CryoArks project, several objectives must be achieved.

The first is to make the majority of the available samples discoverable by continuing this inventory and reorganisation.

Once we know everything in the collection, we will be able to digitise it and make it directly accessible to the various departments of the Museum and to external partners (zoos, aquaria, museums, research institutes, etc). Then we will have to compile all the associated data, to make them clear, formatted and available on the NHM Data Portal and the CryoArks database.

This long-term project will require weeks of work, but in the end it will be a great tribute to Vic Simpson and a great contribution for zoological research and species conservation.

CryoArks

This collection is part of CryoArks, a project spread over several organisations in the UK that also includes European partners, such as the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) and the Global Genome Biodiversity Network (GGBN).

CryoArks was developed to address the need for a sustainable resource of samples for genetics and genomics research on animal species.

Species and populations are disappearing from the wild and permitting issues are increasingly becoming a barrier for fundamental science and conservation management projects.

There is a clear and increasingly evident need to responsibly curate and make available samples that have been collected in the past.

The MCF is one of the main biobanking hubs that house samples in the CryoArks consortium.

Read more about the Molecular Collection Facility at the Museum.

Find out more about Vic Simpson and his work.

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