Category Archives: Our science

The Miniature Lives Magnified project is now complete!

A very big thank-you to the 1,000-plus in-house Visiteers and online Volunteers who helped us to extract research data from over 6,000 microscope slides of the world’s smallest insects – the chalcid parasitoid wasps. The Miniature Lives Magnified project is now closed, but you can still take part in our Digital Collections Programme by helping us with our microscope slides of Foraminifera in Miniature Fossils Magnified.

Over the course of the summer we will be processing the chalcid collection’s specimen label data that was transcribed by our digital volunteers. It will become available on the Museum’s Data Portal for anyone in the world to study.

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The WHO global partners meeting in Geneva and launch of the 4th WHO NTD report | Sustainability

Starting the Neglected Tropical Disease summit in Geneva this week gone, the World Health Organisation brought together its global partners for a meeting to launch the 4th WHO report on Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs). As an important player in the global effort to control and eliminate these debilitating diseases, the Museum has been following the meeting closely.

Photograph with a number of jars of preserved worms, and two dishes with worms within them in the centre. A pair of forceps lies on the table beside them for scale.

Soil-transmitted helminths in the Museum’s collection

The Museum has had a long history of researching NTDs, particularly those caused by worm infections and/or transmitted by insects. Today the Museum hosts DeWorm3, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a major project researching the control and elimination of soil-transmitted helminths, aka intestinal worms. Intestinal worms are the most common of NTDs. DeWorm3 and Museum NTD experts travelled to Geneva for the NTD summit and report on the meeting.

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Bioleaching cobalt from sulphide ores | COG3 Consortium

Recently, members of the Acidophile Research Team at Bangor University carried out some bioleaching experiments which aimed to leach cobalt from the Captain sulfide ore (from New Brunswick, Canada). Sarah Smith, a geomicrobiologist at Bangor University and one of the collaborators in the COG3 project reports.

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a) Mixed bacterial cultures used to inoculate the bioreactor experiments. b) A bioreactor before the addition of the culture and the ore. c) Adding the culture to the bioreactor experiment. d) The bioreactor at the end of the bioleaching experiment carried out at 45°C.”

The aim was to compare the bioleaching rates of metals (primarily cobalt) from the ore at two different temperatures. To do this, two different mixed cultures were grown up (one containing bacteria that are happy at about 30°C, and another with bugs that prefer slightly higher temperatures). The cultures were then added to the bioreactors, along with the ore, and the bugs were left to work their magic!
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Using the “Natural History Large Hadron Collider” to tell us about plant diversity

by Sandy Knapp, NHM Department of Life Sciences

The world’s herbaria hold millions of samples of plants, and until recently they have been largely the domain of taxonomists – those scientists who describe diversity. Herbarium taxonomists compare specimens collected in different parts of the world, assess variation and then come to conclusions about what to name as new, and what to call the same. Our ability to talk about plant diversity depends upon this activity – without names, we would be unable to tell each other about distribution – and as so alarmingly today, decline – of the some half a million plant species with which we share the planet.

Herbaria though are often depicted as dry, dusty out-of-date places, not really connected to the dynamic world of today’s societal needs. But actually, a herbarium can be considered a physical database – each plant specimen is a data point – something that occurred somewhere, sometime, with a particular combination of traits. In a study recently published in BMC Biology, Marc Sosef and colleagues show how powerful a resource these herbarium collections can really be, even in the underexplored tropical rainforests.

The data

Using the RAINBIO dataset  – a collaborative, curated (more about that later) database of herbarium specimens from many institutions all collected in tropical Africa – they perform a number of analyses exploring African plant diversity. Heterogenous datasets like these assembled from herbarium specimens – whose collection is by its very nature ad hoc – are sometimes considered to be less than useful for generating solid estimates of things like species richness, rarity, or turnover (but see commentary in BMC Biology). But for many environments, these are all the data we have.

Specimens in the RAINBIO dataset date from 1782 to the present – almost 250 years of data collection. Figure 5 in the paper graphically shows how exploration of Africa unfolded, along the rivers, tragically along the west coast in association with the iniquitous trade in enslaved people, and patchily through colonial activity in the early part of the 20th century. The history of European engagement with Africa unfolding along with the plants sent to collections, first in European and later also African institutions, is a reminder that science is part of society and does not develop outside of it.

Fig5-1024x683Time lapse of botanical collecting history across tropical Africa. Figure 5.

The robustness of the conclusions drawn by Sosef and colleagues is highly dependent upon the curational state of the data themselves. Taxonomic verification of the identities of samples held in RAINBIO dataset is key to this – this requires taxonomists. One of the things that most impressed me about this study was the degree to which data were validated by taxonomic experts – those scientists whose knowledge of whether or not two names in a list represent the same thing or different species, or whether a species described as a tree on a specimen label really is a tree. There have been criticisms of data served through the GBIF network, for example, but such data are only as good as the curation effort expended; to make use of these rich data sources, first catch some taxonomists and have them on the team!

The findings

The functional data analyzed from the RAINBIO dataset is novel and reveals really interesting patterns. The authors show that the proportion of herbaceous to woody plants is at the upper suggested limit (just under half, 44%). This says to me that tropical botanists need to focus on this vegetation layer as well as on those sexy big trees. An interesting comparison would be of rarity of herbaceous versus woody components of tropical vegetation. If Begonia species are anything to go by, herbs can be extremely rare and range restricted indeed!

Shockingly, the average number of collections per 0.5° square in Africa is 1.84 – that is fewer than two plant records in a square 55 kilometers on each side. Some places, of course, are better collected than others, but let’s get out there! The authors use the patterns revealed by their analysis to suggest collecting priorities for tropical Africa – they identify Tanzania, Atlantic Central Africa and West Africa as priority areas for further collecting to increase our knowledge of plant diversity.

But I might argue that looking at Figure 5, we should seriously think about increasing collecting effort at the northern edge of the African tropics – after all, that is the leading edge of climate change and the area where effects will be felt soon as the environment degrades. These aren’t the big rainforests, but these habitats and areas can be canaries for climate change.

Herbaria (and other natural history collections) represent big science – they are the CERN of natural history. These resources represent an unparalleled infrastructure for looking at how plant diversity is distributed, and are our best hope for documenting how it is changing at a global scale. Imagine if governments or private foundations invested in the digitization of all these invaluable resources, pretty straightforward for flat 2D objects like herbarium sheets, more difficult for 3D objects like insects or worms. The infrastructure thus created, especially if investment is also made in its careful curation and verification, would be the most powerful picture, however flawed it might be, of the Earth’s diversity before it is lost forever. We are crazy not to pull together to create this infrastructure to help us predict our plant’s fate.

This blog post was originally published in the On Biology blog

 

 

New plans for the Museum’s green spaces: connecting people and nature | Science, society and skills

A little over a month ago, the Museum applied for planning permission to continue with an ambitious transformation of its outdoor spaces. Drs John Tweddle, Paul Kenrick and Sandy Knapp of the Museum’s Science Group provide the background to the project and clarify its impact on the Wildlife Garden.

This week marks 21 years since the establishment of the Museum’s Wildlife Garden – a wonderfully green and diverse space tucked away in the western corner of our South Kensington grounds. Since then these habitats have been actively managed and have matured into their current condition.

6. Insect rich grassland WLG_01062015_185

Vibrant and verdant colours in the Wildlife Garden at the west end of the Museum

The anniversary gives us a moment to reflect on how the Museum and its partners are contributing to inspiring people to look more closely at wildlife around them – something that’s a hugely important part of our jobs – and to look forward to how we can make even more of this in the future.

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Digital butterfly data takes flight | Digital Collections Programme

The Museum’s entire collection of  181,545 British and Irish butterflies are now in a digital form and available for all to see online in the Museum’s Data Portal.

Photo from overhead of the drawer containing 9 columns of brightly coloured butterflies with their accompanying QR code labels.

A specimen drawer of common clouded yellow butterflies (Colias croceus). The new barcodes created as part of the Museum’s iCollections digitisation project are visible.

Each butterfly has a new digital image and digital record of the specimen’s collector, place and date of collection and this data are already being used to work out the effects of climate change on UK butterflies.

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DeWorm3: interview on disease elimination with Peter Jourdan│Sustainabilty

 

by Dr Peter Jourdan, Director of Science and Policy, DeWorm3, NHM

@deworm3_NHM

This recent interview outlines the plans and vision for DeWorm3, a major Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-funded Museum project that is conducting rigorous research to provide evidence for the next generation of policies to guide the global control and elimination of infection by soil-transmitted helminths – STH.

STH are intestinal worms that cause a major neglected tropical disease (NTD) affecting millions of people worldwide in less-developed countries, especially in communities with poor access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene facilities.  This disease has major impacts on quality of life, ability to work and economic development. Continue reading