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  • Writer's pictureKirk Hartley

Tasmanian Devils and Real World “Museumomics” – Scientists Use Museum Specimens t

Museumomics ? Scientists using hairs from old, stuffed animals from museums to obtain historic DNA samples of a species, and then running advanced new sequencing software to compare past genomes of the species to current genomes. And, it’s not just an idea but rather it is happening now, as described below. (Does Jurassic Park of 1993 come to mind – this is not the exact same premise, but …)

Tasmanian devils ? The fictional cartoon creature is real, as described here by Wikipedia. It’s also an endangered species.

The scientists ? As is so often true these days, it’s a global team. As described by ScienceDaily, "[the team, led by Stephan Schuster, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Penn State University; Webb Miller, a professor of biology and computer science and engineering at Penn State University; and Vanessa Hayes of the Venter Institute in San Diego, includes other scientists at institutions and universities in Australia, Denmark, and the United States. The results of the study will be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences." Reading the bios of the team leaders illustrates the significant depth and breadth of their knowledge. As to the reference to the Venter Institute, that is indeed a reference to the institute created Craig Venter of the Human Genome Project.

The science? Summarized here by ScienceDaily, it’s a new science journal article on using museumomics to try to help thwart extinction of the Tasmanian devil. The point is to find genetically diverse animals before starting a breeding program. In short, pick the right breeding animals, as best we can tell, by comparing the genomes of current animals to prior generations of animals.

Implications ? Consider the litigation possibilities of studies looking backwards at the genomes of various species, including homo sapiens. For example, consider a study of museum samples of bald eagles and other birds. Suppose museumomics could track and show the genomic changes caused over time by DDT. This online article from Duke provides a simple summary of some of the impacts of DDT. The massive overall impact for eagles was described in this 1982 Science article by James W. Grier. DDT also caused non-genomic changes, as described in this 2009 article by Silva et al.

Perhaps museumomics also will put an end to Fox "News" publishing stories (e.g this 2006 story) that seek to distract attention away from the reality that DDT caused massive harm. The headline from Fox ? "Bald Eagle – DDT Myth Still Flying High."

Read the key excerpts below to see the working scale of the museumomics as applied to the Tasmanian Devil.


"The second aspect of the project was to learn how much genetic diversity had been lost since Europeans settled Tasmania in 1803. To do this, the scientists analyzed a large number of genetic markers from an additional 175 Tasmanian devils, some of which were museum specimens from the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. and the Natural History Museum in London. Schuster explained that this approach to genomic research, which he has named "museomics," is truly unique and brimming with potential. "Museums are treasure troves of specimens collected in the last 250 years," Schuster said. "And, in fact, we can get DNA from hair shafts of a museum specimen." Schuster explained that DNA collection from hair is virtually non-destructive; that is, museum specimens are not damaged visually in the process of removing just a few hairs. Interestingly, after analyzing the 175 individuals, the scientists learned that the genomic diversity of the Tasmanian devil, while low, has not decreased much over the last century. "This is an important finding because it means that DFTD is not to blame for any lack of genetic diversity since the disease appeared only 15 years ago," Miller explained. "It’s crucial that we act as responsible stewards for the species, helping maintain what little genetic diversity it had before the DFTD epidemic struck."

Schuster also said that a significant and defining part of the team’s project was the ability to generate extra-long genetic sequences using a special genome-sequencing technology that, at the time the scientists performed the research, had not yet been released publicly. "This technology, developed by Roche Diagnostics and 454 Life Sciences, allowed us to assemble a mammalian genome from scratch," Schuster said. "The longer stretches of DNA or "long reads" were particularly critical to develop a full understanding of the genetic makeup of such a unique species."

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