How natural history museums should play a bigger role in finding sources of wildlife pathogens

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In an article from mBio reviewthey argue that ‘host validation’, the practice of saving and archiving specimens believed to be host to a virus, must be part of the study of animal pathogens .

The team says the voucher, which gives other researchers the chance to repeat experiments and expand their monitoring of the spread of new pathogens, is not common enough.

But biologists might have an ace up their sleeve, if they choose to use it: museums.

In the article, the scientists highlight how natural history museums and other specimen repositories have helped researchers determine the source of a pathogen in wild animals.

Take hantaviruses, a family of viruses that can jump from rodents to humans. In 1993, seven apparently healthy young people in the southwestern United States deceased of respiratory failure. Since the deaths did not appear to be due to a known disease, researchers turned to rodent specimens stored in museums and research archives in New Mexico and Texas to determine what caused the outbreak. .

Scientists eventually identified the deaths of deer mice and other rodents infected with the virus and were able to isolate the virus, which was eventually named Sin Nombre virus, within months.

By integrating conservation and sample collection into the research process, the authors say, scientists and conservationists can add a tool to humanity’s arsenal against animal pathogens.

The lack of vouchers “has limited our ability to respond to the current COVID-19 pandemic”, said study author Cody Thompson, who is responsible for mammal collections at the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, in a press release.

He says the practice “should be considered the gold standard in host-pathogen studies as a key part of pandemic preparedness.”

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