Press Release: How natural history museums can help prevent the next pandemic

June 25, 2020 Science

COVID-19 made its way to humans from animals, although exactly how is still a topic of scientific debate. Diseases like malaria, West Nile virus, swine flu, and bird flu all got their start in animals too. As people encroach upon the natural world, crossovers like these are becoming more and more common. To better understand the diseases we’re currently facing and find ways to prevent future pandemics, museum scientists argue that the answers lie in developing a better understanding of the animals that help spread them. And they say, the preserved animal specimens and tissues behind the scenes at natural history museums around the world are key to this research over time.

“Museums are incredible repositories of biodiversity information, and this whole COVID-19 situation is the result of a virus crossing over from some part of biodiversity into humans,” says John Bates, curator of birds and head of life sciences at the Field Museum and co-author of two editorials in an upcoming issue of the journal BioScience. “We have tools now to actually study that in ways that we never could before, and studying the material in museum collections will put us in an ideal position to be able to understand what's going on and get ahead of things like viruses and other disease-causing agents crossing over into humans.”

In one of the editorials, Bates and his colleagues cite a historical example from the Field’s collection that aided in malaria research. Owl monkeys-- one-pound, giant-eyed nocturnal primates from South America-- are susceptible to the same malaria that infects humans, and scientists have studied them as models for developing treatments for humans. However, some owl monkeys seemed more susceptible to malaria than others. In 1983, the Field’s then-curator of mammals, Philip Hershkovitiz, published a study using the museum’s owl monkey specimens to show that owl monkeys from different areas were different species which also explained the differences in tolerance, which was critical information for malarial studies.

And this sort of research continues today. This spring, Field Museum scientists published a paper about how different strains of coronaviruses have evolved with different bat species, and Adam Ferguson, the Field’s collections manager of mammals, is working with researchers in Canada studying the role of bats in the origins of COVID-19.

“Using new technologies, including Next-Generation-Sequencing platforms, we are attempting to obtain historical viral RNA sequences from a variety of candidate host species of COVID-19 collected from 1896 to present. We are currently focusing on bats, as this is where the closest genetic sequence to human COVID-19 has been identified, although it only shares 96% similarity. Most of these historical specimens were collected before DNA was even discovered and were preserved with formalin, which historically rendered DNA analyses impossible. Thanks to new technologies, and collaborations with colleagues specializing in ancient DNA techniques, like Hendrik Poinar at McMaster University, we are hopeful we can obtain viral sequence information to be better able to reconstruct the evolutionary history of COVID-19 and other coronaviruses,”  says Ferguson, who is also a co-author of the BioScience editorial.

Bates and Ferguson note that museum collections can be used in many ways. The animals themselves are a record of which species are found where, and by analyzing the specimens’ DNA, researchers can study how they evolved and how they’re related to each other. What’s more, samples of blood and tissue from animals collected in recent years, stored at -309° F in the Field’s underground storage facility, can be used to study the viruses themselves.

A major effort of the museum community for the last several decades has been to digitize the data associated with these collections and make those data broadly accessible through data portals that connect the specimens to data like DNA sequences of both the host and the parasite.  Bates, Ferguson, and others in the museum participate in efforts like ViralMuse (https://www.idigbio.org/wiki/index.php/ViralMuse_Task_Force), which a recently formed collaboration specifically focused on improving the interactions between the disease-related research community and the museum collections community.  These efforts help researchers quickly find specimens in collections that might be relevant for a particular study, and via these "extended specimens," scientists develop a clearer understanding of how these interactions occur and change through time.

Bates also notes that viruses don’t always harm their hosts. “It's easy to forget that all animals and plants have been evolving with viruses and bacteria and other disease-causing parasites for millions of years. And so, if they can live with these diseases, that means they've developed a level of resistance,” he says. “If you understand why certain parts of biodiversity are resistant, you may have the capacity to understand exactly what needs to happen within humans.”

“We do not have a complete picture of where arthropod disease vectors occur, or may have occurred over the last century. Museum collections house important historical records representing all life on earth, allowing us to address knowledge gaps related to species distributions,” says Jen Zaspel, an entomologist at the Milwaukee Public Museum and the first author of one of the BioScience editorials. Zaspel is leading a collaborative NSF-funded project with Field Museum and others to digitize information in these collections as part of this effort.

Bates says that he hopes that the new editorials will help show the role that museums can play in fighting pandemics. “This work highlights why collections matter, and why the research we do matters.”