#AceHistoryReport – Oct.19: Technological advances in DNA sampling mean pathogens lurking inside the pickled specimens – many dating back to the British Empire – may also be revealed for the first time.
#AceHistoryDesk says according to Telegraph report the museum has unearthed thousands of bat skulls and pickled specimens which may yield new details on the origins of Covid-19:
Some of the 50,000 bat specimens in storage at the Natural History Museum ……So could clues to the pandemic’s origins have been lurking in the Natural History Museum all along?
By indexing roughly 12,000 samples from three major bat families stored deep in its vaults, the museum aims to help scientists trace where the flying mammals have lived over centuries, and how the viruses they carry “spillover” to humans.
“The front of the Natural History Museum is big, but what they’ve got behind the scenes is just mind blowing,” said Jonathan Ball, a professor of virology at the University of Nottingham.
“The collection is a treasure trove, a source of new information on known and potentially unknown viral threats.”
He added: “If we can find a coronavirus in bats that looks very similar to the coronavirus in humans, we can use that to build up a better picture of where that virus likely originated.”
The Telegraph was given exclusive access to the Museum’s bat collection, which includes specimens that pre-date 1753 – when the world renowned institution was founded.
Together with eight other European museums, researchers in London are racing to meticulously document the samples before the end of the year, turning disparate records into a digitised “bat library”.
The journey into the depths of the museum is otherworldly – part Harry Potter, part Joseph Conrad, part Matrix. The contrast with the grand and airy public galleries is striking.
We passed through the windowless “tank room”, where hundreds of pickled creatures float, complete but inanimate, in alcohol under an eerie orange light.
Sitting on shelves are vipers, possums, komodo dragons – even a giant squid, it’s tentacles stretching some 28 feet across the room.
The bat room initially feels like a relief. Long and dimly lit with neon, metal grey cabinets stand in regiment floor to ceiling. It could be a subterranean computer bank or a secret service archive.
Only when the cabinet doors swing open are you confronted with thousands of snarling pickled bats, their mouths pinned open in a frozen scream.
“It allows us to identify them from their teeth,” explains Roberto Portela Miguez, a tall senior curator with long dark hair and skull themed jewellery.
Upstairs in “mammal tower” are thousands more dried samples – skins, wings, skeletons and skulls – in rows and rows of wooden cabinets.
Like their “wet” cousins, they were brought to the museum in the days of empire from explorers returning from far-flung corners of the globe.
All are accompanied by handwritten labels – often in the explorer’s original hand – detailing the specimen’s sex, geography and genus. Bombay ‘32, the Togian Islands , Congo, China… the list goes on.
It is data on these labels that will become the backbone of the online library the museum is building, and which will make it so valuable to virologists and other scientists.
Observations taken from collectors’ field notes will also be recorded for the first time – for example, whether the bat was found in an isolated cave or near a human settlement.
“A whole lot of potential here is untapped simply because the collection is not visible,” said Mr Portela Miguez. “Putting together this open access database, it’s almost like setting up the pillars of a house. It’s going to help people do more research globally.”
In total, the museum is home to at least 50,000 bat specimens and the current project aims to document some 12,000 from three families: Old World leaf-nosed bats, horseshoe bats and trident bats.
It is the pickled bats, which have been suspended in time with their major organs intact, that could offer the most compelling clues about the origins of pathogens and pandemics.
Bats, which make up 20 per cent of all mammalian species, are known to harbour thousands of viruses that could potentially jump to humans.
Just last month, researchers found coronaviruses in colonies of horseshoe bats in Somerset, Gloucestershire and Wales, though there is no indication they can yet spread to humans.
According to a joint World Health Organization-China report into the origins of Sars-Cov-2, it is most likely that the Covid-19 virus emerged in bats and jumped to humans via an as-yet-unidentified intermediary animal.
And, in China’s Yunnan province, experts have previously found a bat-borne coronavirus that is 96 per cent identical to early sequences of Sars-Cov-2.
Yet tracking bats in the wild to uncover more details about the pathogens lurking inside them is a tricky task.
While virus hunters kitted out in hazmat suits do venture into jungles and caves to collect samples, museums offer a different way to study the flying mammals.
“These guys are very difficult to monitor in the wild so museum collections offer a portal, or a mini window, into what has happened in a particular time in a particular place,” said Mr Portela Miguez.
Prof Ball added that the technology needed to study the viruses inside the pickled bats has only emerged in the last five to ten years – though it is likely that only around 20 per cent of samples at the Natural History Museum will be well-preserved enough to extract delicate RNA viruses, such as Ebola, measles and Sars-Cov-2.
“We take a small puncture biopsy through the bats and try to hit the liver or the key organs,” Prof Ball said.
“Once we’ve got that tissue sample we hope the nucleic acids, or RNA, that it contains are reasonably well preserved… and if it is, we can basically trawl the RNA for the presence of viruses in there, using a process called meta genomics.”
Small proof of concept studies by Prof Ball’s team have confirmed that the process works, while studies from museum collections elsewhere have yielded promising results.
In a pre-print published in January, researchers identified a coronavirus closely related to Sars-Cov-2 in bats collected in Cambodia in 2010 and held for a decade in Paris’ Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle.
“It is exciting, there’s huge potential to try and understand how, when and why these spillover events occur,” said Prof Ball. “And hopefully we can gain a better understanding of what’s out there and how it’s been evolving, so we can start to piece together different parts of the puzzle.”
“The whole process is a voyage of discovery,” added Mr Portela Miguez. “We can only estimate roughly how many more specimens we have, we can only estimate how much information we’re going to get.
“But whatever we can find we are going to upload it, so people can have more information to set up projects or better understand where these species occur, where they have lived, how they have lived – and then potentially predict future threats.”
- Find out more about the project from the Natural History Museum
#AceNewsDesk report …………Published: Oct.19: 2021:
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