There are samples taken from a red-tailed hawk in Jemez Springs in 2006, a short-tailed weasel near Hummingbird Creek in Canada in 2003 and a black bear in Glorieta in 1996.
Those are just some of what can be found by clicking through a vast searchable online database of frozen samples that are part of the Museum of Southwestern Biology’s Division of Genomic Resources on the University of New Mexico campus. Although many students and passersby might not realize it, UNM’s campus houses one of the world’s largest collections of animal tissues and blood samples stored in cryogenic tanks, and the trove is used in scientific research across the world, according to museum officials.
Earlier this fall, the museum added two new cryogenic tanks, where samples are
stored at minus 190 degrees Celsius (minus 310 degrees Fahrenheit), giving the museum five tanks. The supercold vaults can hold nearly 500,000 tissue and blood samples, according to the museum’s website. Specimens from mammals, birds, reptiles, fish and parasites are stored in the icy chambers.
The frozen samples are just part of the museum’s total collections, which also include dried animal skins that were collected by UNM students and researchers on trips throughout the world.
The museum, founded in 1939, has been cold-storing samples since 1979.
That means UNM was storing biological material in freezing temperatures – and thereby preserving its DNA – before DNA was well-understood by scientists, said Michael Anderson, the curator of genomic resources.
“Part of what we do here is for the unknown, for the question that no one has asked yet. The collectors of old had no idea about DNA. Now, we use the specimens in ways that the people who collected them had no idea. We keep that philosophy going for the future,” Anderson said. “The best part of this job is saving (samples) for somebody 100 years from now who is going to do something that is far smarter than what we know now.”
The museum stores the material in one of two ways. The best method, said
Mariel Campbell, the senior collection manager of the genomic division, is to use the cryotanks, where samples sit in tiny, organized vials amid nitrogen vapor about 7 inches above liquid nitrogen. The other method is to use freezers that aren’t as cold and would warm quickly in the event of a power outage. And the former method better preserves RNA, a major biological macromolecule, she said.
In addition to its five cryotanks, UNM has 18 freezers. Campbell said the museum’s long-term goal is to have 11 cryotanks so it can transfer all the samples from the freezers to the colder and more secure tanks.
The two newest tanks were purchased using $110,000 in state capital outlay money and a grant from the National Science Foundation, according to a UNM news release.
“These are ideal. This is the best situation for preserving DNA, RNA and for pathogen discovery and research,” Campbell said of the tanks. “As a mechanism for understanding pathogens for global health and understanding animal reservoirs of disease … this is really valuable. Multiple publications have resulted from what we have here.”
A highlight of the cold-storage systems came in 1993, when UNM played a key role in helping doctors from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other organizations determine that a mysterious illness killing and gravely sickening people in the Four Corners region was hantavirus, which was being spread by deer mice, Campbell said.
The museum lends samples to researchers throughout the world more than 50 times a year, on average. And those findings have contributed to many research publications, Campbell said.
The entire museum’s collections formed the basis of 169 scientific publications in 2018, according to the museum’s annual report.
“It’s the kind of asset that facilitates research,” said Chris Witt, director of the museum. “It’s in demand here, for students and professors, and around the country and around the world.”
The museum has also served to motivate students from different fields of study.
Kaylen Soudachanh was an undergraduate art major when she first visited the museum.
“I just heard there was really cool skinned, stuffed animals and I could check them out for an art class,” she said.
She then started volunteering and working at the museum, and ultimately ended up getting a master’s in museum studies and working on an exhibit and research project of the Mexican gray wolf, or lobo.