The mysteries of human health can be solved with these records of preserved animals.
In the spirit of Halloween, deep in the Texas Technical University Museum is a scene that could be straight out of a horror movie.
Thick glass jars fill the countless shelves in a room – they hold about 30,000.
An adjacent cavernous space contains 125,000 bats, mice, rabbits and others mammals carefully dissected, stuffed with cotton and stored in drawers, as well as 4.6 million insects, arachnids and other invertebrates preserved.
From there, meanders through labyrinthine passages lead to an indescribable wooden door. Only the code panel hints at its level of security – it’s the perfect place to hide something extremely valuable. Inside are five huge silver tubs, each large enough for two people to climb, not that they want to. They are freezers filled with liquid nitrogen, and together they hold more than 400,000 samples – the heart, liver, kidneys, muscles, spleen, lungs, blood and intestines of almost all animals. A slightly smaller tub bounded by panels and neon tape contains more than 3,000 radioactive specimens collected at Chernobyl.
Hidden away from the public, this place seems shrouded in mystery. Most people have never seen it, and many don’t even know it exists. Corn Robert bradley, its director, wants that to change.
Because in reality, it is a scientific research center that archives biological samples for research purposes. It’s the Natural science research laboratory (NSRL), and it holds the keys to the past, present and future of biodiversity on earth within its walls.
You see, this windowless place is, in itself, a window into another time. Researchers can use the NSRL specimens to examine anything from the genetic history of a species to viruses already circulating in animals that could one day affect humans. In addition to answering the everyday questions scientists ask themselves, the work that takes place inside the NSRL has the potential to be life changing.
“In the late 1990s, I was convinced to work with a virologist on an arenavirus study, so I collected rats outside of Lubbock,” said Bradley, professor at the Department of Biological Sciences and the museum’s curator of mammals, designating one of the large gray and preserved rodents. “We have described a brand new virus. He had been here, but no one knew. So, there are all kinds of things lurking here that we just haven’t been looking for. ”
The clues found in the DNA of NSRL specimens can answer all kinds of questions researchers might one day ask.
“It is an incredibly important scientific infrastructure which is a very rich resource,” he said. “As humans continue to modify the biosphere, particularly by impacting climate change and accelerating land use change, these collections will be extremely important as a baseline for the way things used to be, allowing us thus to measure our impacts. They will provide an important baseline that can be used to define the goal of any type of restoration effort.
A deadly enigma
Collections can also help solve mysteries.
Bradley talks about an outbreak of hantavirus in New Mexico in the early 1990s. Active, healthy adults in their 20s and 30s were dying, and scientists and public health officials were perplexed. Then a claim emerged that some sort of biological weapon must have escaped from the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
After narrowing down the likely transporter to rodents, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) turned to the country’s two oldest tissue collections: the NSRL, whose mammal specimens date back to the 1930s, and the Museum of the University of New Mexico Southwestern Biology, which was started by an NSRL alumnus. The CDC requested samples from a certain species of mice, and the NSRL loaned them several hundred tissue samples.
Scientists at the CDC found the virus in these mice, not only in the most recent specimens, but also in the oldest.
“It turned out that this virus has been around for a long time,” Bradley said. “It wasn’t new. It was not a biological weapon. It wasn’t something the military did or Los Alamos was doing. It was a natural virus that was in rodents.
“I was actually a graduate student here at Texas Tech in 1986, ”he added. “We caught a whole bunch of these mice by hand, picking up bales of hay and grabbing mice as they came out, and a whole bunch of them then tested positive. So why didn’t we all get sick? ”
Once the source of the virus was resolved, a new question emerged: why was this suddenly a problem?
“It was just after an extremely wet year,” Bradley explained. “There were a lot of grass seeds, a lot of pine nuts and the mouse populations really increased, so the virus became very prevalent in the community. These mice lived in houses and cabins, and that’s where people were exposed to them.
It was a human health mystery solved by an archive of biological research specimens.
“We’re like a natural history library,” Bradley said. “When you go to a library, there’s a bunch of books that go back the furthest in time, and that’s a resource. We serve as a resource to document and have representatives of the biodiversity around us.
“I can take that bat there, cut a little piece of his skin or a piece of nail, and I can isolate DNA from him at least 50 years ago.” I can tell what the genetics of a population looked like. Now that’s a sample size of one, so that’s not going to tell me much, but we can go back in time and see what that looks like. For species with 100 specimens, we can make a very good estimate. ”
That is why it is important to have a large collection. Texas Tech is the fourth largest university mammal collection in the country, but with its rapid growth Bradley expects the NSRL to move to third place in the next few years.
Early last year, the NSRL celebrated the addition of its 150,000th mammalian specimen: a black-and-white spotted bat, of the species Euderma maculatum. It was a memorable species for this stage because, although the NSRL has around 40,000 bat specimens, there was only one other spotted bat. This one was caught almost 50 years earlier.
“This bat is pretty rare,” Bradley said of their new spotted bat. “In Texas, they only occur in the Big Bend area; this guy was from the Cloudcroft area.
Stevens studies the correlation between altitude and biodiversity in the Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico.
“When we collected bats for this research, we very incidentally captured one of North America’s most elusive bat species, the spotted bat, Euderma maculatum,” he said. he declares. “This species has an unmistakably unique morphology. In particular, it has three large white spots on its back and some of the longest ears of any North American bat species. It is difficult to catch, feeds very late at night and is therefore not found in many collections. As such, he makes a valuable contribution to the NSRL.
Not so scary
Less than two years after adding its 150,000th mammalian specimen, the NSRL has cataloged 5,000 more.
“During this extreme cold spell that we had last winter, thousands of bats froze to death across the state, so we had individuals who sent bats to us, biologists from Texas Parks & Wildlife sent us dozens of bats, ”Bradley said. “Part of our growth comes from opportunistic collections like this, part of it comes from field trips that we do on our own, when we go out specifically to collect specimens for research.
“In the past, we had a lot of bats from the state health department that tested them for rabies, and after testing them, they sent the bats to us for identification. ”
It is normal that these specimens ultimately allow a wide variety of research projects on zoonoses.
“Right now, of course, we’re all writing proposals to conduct research related to COVID-19,” Bradley said. “We want to see if our bats are not only carrying the strains of coronavirus that we’re seeing right now, but there are probably a lot of strains that we haven’t detected yet. ”
From zoonotic disease research to climate change and more, Stevens and Bradley hope the collections will be used to inform and mitigate a wide variety of human challenges in the future.
GoiSo, while the NSRL may seem like a scary place at first glance, the research it makes possible just might save us from things that are much scarier.