How Natural History Museums Can Help Fight Future Pandemics


Likewise, in the early 1990s, an unknown fatal disease emerged in the southwestern United States, and researchers used specimens from the Museum of Southwestern Biology to identify deer mice as the species it originated from. . They were even able to show that the virus had circulated in local rodent populations for years and that its appearance in humans was linked to El Niño climate cycles.

Collections may be finite, but their potential uses are endless. As technology and scientific techniques evolve, so do the uses of our collections.

“It wasn’t that long ago that we thought we couldn’t get DNA from museum specimens, but recent advances in technology have made it possible,” says Roberto. “We shouldn’t help dreaming about what we could learn from the collections.

A COVID-19 knowledge base

Alongside eight institutions, the DCP is participating in a project that aims to bring together data held in natural history collections on horseshoe bats (Rhinolophidae) and their close families, Old World leaf-nosed bats ( Hipposideridae) and trident bats (Rhinonycteridae).

These families were chosen because a coronavirus most similar to the one that caused the current pandemic was found in a species of bat belonging to the horseshoe bat family.

This data will be published on an open platform as a knowledge base on COVID-19 bats, making it available to researchers around the world who are studying the origins of the virus.

The project was initiated by the CETAF COVID-19 working group and is funded by SYNTHESYS + Virtual Access.

Cristiane is leading the project with Gabor Csorba, principal researcher and bat expert at the Hungarian Museum of Natural History.

“We were caught off guard by the COVID lockdown,” Gabor explains. “Very suddenly all of the labs and collections were closed, and in many cases the information we needed was in personal notes, unpublished datasets, or isolated collections.”

At the start of the pandemic, it was clear that there was a relationship between bats and disease.

“This put more pressure on the need for data on bats,” explains Cristiane.

The pandemic highlighted the lack of access to necessary bat data and, more broadly, illustrated the importance of digitizing natural history collections.

“We must seize this opportunity to create databases that are freely accessible and usable for the entire scientific community,” says Gabor. “This situation we find ourselves in is a great stimulus to produce this huge database.”

While this project is working to create new public records for bat specimens that currently do not have one, there are thousands of bat specimen records that have already been digitized and are available in databases such as the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) and iDigBio. This data also has enormous potential for pandemic research, and the National Science Foundation (NSF) therefore funded a grant to make this data as useful as possible.


Comments are closed.