Tucked into the University of New Mexico’s biology department is the Museum of Southwestern Biology, a research and teaching facility that houses massive collections of mammals, amphibians, reptiles, insects, birds, fishes, plants and parasites.
It also maintains the world’s largest archive of frozen tissue samples, with more than a half-million specimens.
Such collections, scientists say, are crucial to a wide range of research – from the impact of climate change to how species evolve. The museum’s tissues collection, for example, played a role in UNM’s research of Hantavirus, a potentially deadly virus linked to deer mice.
So last month’s surprise decision by a branch of the National Science Foundation to indefinitely suspend a program that funds maintenance of such biological research collections has biologists at UNM and nationwide wondering how they will continue preserving sometimes irreplaceable specimens of plants and animals.
Each year, the National Science Foundation, through its Collections in Support of Biological Research grants program, doles out between $3 million and $5 million to universities, museums and other organizations that maintain natural history collections. The NSF is one of the few public agencies that provides funds for the care, organization, maintenance and cataloging of biological collections.
On March 16, the NSF announced the “indefinite” suspension of the grants program, citing the federal agency’s flat budget and a need to review its CSBR program and two other programs. Although the NSF will honor grants already approved, it will not accept grant applications for at least 2016.
Since the mid-’90s, the Museum of Southwestern Biology has received nearly $2 million in CSBR grants for projects ranging from a space-saving racking system for specimen cabinets to obtaining an “orphaned” collection of parasites that could no longer be maintained by another museum.
“This one makes no sense at all, because a lot of the new programs that are coming out of NSF … are going to be relying on collections like this to take care of all the specimens that come out of these new initiatives,” said Jon Dunnam, Ph.D., the museum’s senior collections manager for mammals. “I can’t quite grasp what the driving force really is. This is the kind of biological infrastructure that is absolutely going to be necessary going forward.”
Although Muriel Poston, director of NSF’s Division of Biological Infrastructure in Arlington, Va., cautioned curators and researchers against assuming the worst, many are.
In a March 24 letter to the NSF – signed by the leaders of the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections, the American Institute of Biological Sciences and Joseph Cook, president of the Natural Science Collections Alliance and director of the UNM museum – the scientists argued against any curtailment of the grants program.
“These organizations and the many scientists that use these specimens feel strongly that (CSBR) is an important program that should instead be invested in more vigorously, rather than being cut or stalled,” the letter states.
In particular, the scientists worry that NSF is planning to invest in research and digitization at the expense of the collections infrastructure.
“Digitized images and data are a vital asset to research and education efforts, but they are not a substitute for actual collections,” they wrote. “Once lost, physical specimens (i.e., historic biological samples) and the ancillary data associated with them can never be regained.”
The biological collections, scientists say, enable a wide range of research. Comparing contemporary animals to preserved specimens, for example, can define a species’ historic range and whether current populations might be threatened or endangered.
The collections can also help scientists understand how climate change affected various species in the past and how today’s species might be responding. DNA sequencing, for example, has helped scientists identify previously unknown species.
Closer to home, the UNM museum’s genomic collection helped researchers determine that Hantavirus persisted in New Mexico long before the 1993 outbreak that brought the disease widespread attention. The virus, which can cause a fatal lung disease in humans, is spread by rodent droppings.
Fortunately, the genomic research program landed a $433,598 grant shortly before
the CSBR program was halted. The funds – which cover the first year of a planned three-year, $3 million project – will be used to replace 18 freezers with a more energy-efficient liquid-nitrogen freezing system.
Mariel Campbell, collection manager for the division, said the current freezers hold the samples at minus 80 degrees Celsius (-112 Fahrenheit). In the event of an extended power loss or other emergency, the samples could begin deteriorating in as little as 90 minutes, Campbell said.
The liquid-nitrogen system, which will hold the samples at minus 180 degrees Celsius (-292 Fahrenheit), are about 60 percent more energy efficient and could preserve the tissue samples for up to three weeks in an emergency, she said.
Christopher Witt, Ph.D., curator of birds and assistant director of the museum, said the tissue collection grows by about 10,000 samples per year on average.
“Because previous curators recognized that frozen tissues were going to be important, they started collecting (mammal tissues) in the late 1970s,” Witt said. “That’s as early as anybody began collecting frozen tissues systematically. … Now, we have the best frozen tissue collection in the world for mammals – the most diverse, the largest and the most global in scope.”
Witt said a lengthy delay in resuming the CSRB program would increase competition for future funding and could pose problems for the genomic research project.
“We certainly aim to go back to this program to help complete the transfer of the genomic resources collection to nitrogen vapor storage,” he said.
The museum’s only other active CSBR grant funds a georeferencing project. The $140,350 grant ends June 31.