Museums Preserve Clues That Can Help Scientists Predict and Analyze Future Pandemics
By Pamela Soltis, Joseph Cook and Richard Yanagihara
In less than 20 years, communities around the globe have been hit by a string of major disease outbreaks: SARS, MERS, Ebola, Zika and now, COVID-19. Nearly all emerging infectious diseases in humans originate from microorganisms that are harbored by wildlife and subsequently "jump," either directly or indirectly – for example, through mosquitoes or ticks – to humans.
One factor driving the increase in zoonotic disease outbreaks is that human activities – including population growth, migration and consumption of wild animals – are leading to increased encounters with wildlife. At the same time, genetic mutations in viruses and other microbes are creating new opportunities for disease emergence.
But humans remain largely ignorant of our planet's biodiversity and its natural ecosystems. Only two million species – about 20% of all the estimated species on Earth – have even been named In our view, this fundamental ignorance of nearly all aspects of biodiversity has resulted in an inefficient, poorly coordinated and minimally science-based response to key aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
We have diverse backgrounds in plant and mammal evolution and emerging infectious diseases. In a newly published commentary that we wrote with colleagues from across the U.S. and in six other countries, we identify a largely untapped resource for predicting future pandemics: natural history collections in museums around the world.
These collections preserve specimens of animals, plants and other organisms that illustrate the diversity of life on Earth. They are reservoirs of information and samples that can help scientists identify likely pathogen sources, hosts and transmission pathways. We believe that leveraging collections in this way will require more resources and more collaboration between biodiversity scientists and disease outbreak sleuths.
Archives of Life on Earth
Research shows that zoonotic diseases have increased due to human intrusion into animal habitats. In particular, destruction of tropical rain forests throughout the world has brought us face to face with microbes that occur naturally in wild animals and can cause disease in our own species.
Earth's biodiversity is connected through a family tree. Viruses, bacteria and other microbes have evolved with their hosts for millions of years. As a result, a virus that resides in a wild animal host such as a bat without causing disease can be highly pathogenic when transmitted to humans. This is the case with zoonotic diseases.
Unfortunately, national responses to disease outbreaks are often based on very limited knowledge of the basic biology, or even the identity, of the pathogen and its wild host. As scientists, we believe that harnessing centuries of biological knowledge and resources from natural history collections can provide an informed road map to identify the origin and transmission of disease outbreaks.
These collections of animals, plants and fungi date back centuries and are the richest sources of information available about life on Earth. They are housed in museums ranging from the Smithsonian Institution to small colleges.
Together, the world's natural history collections are estimated to contain more than three billion specimens, including preserved specimens of possible hosts of the coronaviruses that have led to SARS, MERS and COVID-19. They provide a powerful distribution map of our planet's biodiversity over space and through time.
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How can researchers channel these collections toward disease discovery? Each specimen – say, a species of pitcher plant from Florida or a deer mouse from arid New Mexico – is catalogued with a scientific name, a collection date and the place where it was collected, and often with other relevant information. These records underpin scientists' understanding of where host species and their associated pathogens are found and when they occurred there.
Connecting the site of a disease outbreak to potential pathogen hosts that occur in that area can help to pinpoint likely hosts, sources of pathogens, and pathways of transmission from hosts to humans and from one human to another. These natural history collections are connected worldwide through massive online databases, so a researcher anywhere in the world can find information on potential hosts in far-off regions.
But that's just the beginning. A preserved specimen of a rodent, a bat or any other potential host animal in a collection also carries preserved pathogens, such as coronaviruses. This means that researchers can quickly survey microbes using specimens that were collected decades or more before for an entirely different purpose. They can use this information to quickly identify a pathogen, associate it with particular wild hosts, and then reconstruct the past distributions and evolution of disease-causing microbes and hosts across geographic space.
Many collections contain frozen samples of animal specimens stored in special low-temperature freezers. These materials can be quickly surveyed for microbes and possible human pathogens using genetic analysis. Scientists can compare DNA sequences of the pathogens found in animal specimens with the disease-causing agent to identify and track pathways of transmission.
For example, museum specimens of deer mice at the University of New Mexico were key to the rapid identification of a newly discovered species of hantavirus that caused 13 deaths in the southwest United States in 1993. Subsequent studies of preserved specimens have revealed many new species and variants of hantaviruses in other rodents, shrews, moles and, recently, bats worldwide.
Equipping Museums and Connecting Scientists
Natural history collections have the potential to help revolutionize studies of epidemics and pandemics. But to do this, they will need more support.
Even though they play a foundational role in biology, collections are generally underfunded and understaffed. Many of them lack recent specimens or associated frozen tissues for genetic analyses. Many regions of our planet have been poorly sampled, especially the most biodiverse countries near the tropics.
To leverage biodiversity science for biomedical research and public health, museums will need more field sampling; new facilities to house collections, especially in biodiverse countries; and expanded databases for scientists who collect the samples, analyze DNA sequences and track transmission routes. These investments will require increased funding and innovations in biomedical and biodiversity sciences.
Another challenge is that natural history curators and pathobiologists who study the mechanisms of disease work in separate scientific communities and are only vaguely aware of each other's resources, despite clear benefits for both basic and clinical research. We believe now is the time to reflect on how to leverage diverse resources and build stronger ties between natural history museums, pathobiologists and public health institutions. Collaboration will be key to our ability to predict, and perhaps forestall, future pandemics.
Pamela Soltis is a Distinguished Professor and Curator, Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida.
Joseph Cook is a Professor of Biology and Curator, Division of Mammals, Museum of Southwestern Biology, University of New Mexico.
Richard Yanagihara is a Professor of Pediatrics and Principal Investigator, Pacific Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases Research, University of Hawaii.
Disclosure statement: Pamela Soltis receives funding from the National Science Foundation. She serves on leadership boards of the American Institute of Biological Sciences and the American Society of Plant Taxonomists. Joseph Cook receives funding from the National Science Foundation. Richard Yanagihara receives funding from the National Institutes of Health. He works at the John A. Burns School of Medicine, of the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Joni Sweet
If you get a call from a number you don't recognize, don't hit decline — it might be a contact tracer calling to let you know that someone you've been near has tested positive for the coronavirus.
Interviews With Contact Tracers<p>Contact tracing is a public health strategy that involves identifying everyone who may have been in contact with a person who has the coronavirus. Contact tracers collect information and provide guidance to help contain the transmission of disease.</p><p>It's been used during outbreaks of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), Ebola, measles, and now the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.</p><p>It starts when the local department of health gets a report of a confirmed case of the coronavirus in its community and gives that person a call. The contact tracer usually provides information on how to isolate and when to get treatment, then tries to figure out who else the person may have exposed.</p><p>"We ask who they've been in contact with in the 48 hours prior to symptom onset, or 2 days before the date of their positive test if they don't have symptoms," said <a href="https://case.edu/medicine/healthintegration/people/heidi-gullett" target="_blank">Dr. Heidi Gullett</a>, associate director of the Center for Community Health Integration at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and medical director of the Cuyahoga County Board of Health in Ohio.</p>
“You’ve Been Exposed”<p>After the case interview, contact tracers will get to work calling the folks who may have been exposed to the coronavirus by the person who tested positive.</p><p>"We give them recommendations about quarantining or isolating, getting tested, and what to do if they become sick. If they're not already sick, we still want them to self-quarantine so that they don't spread the disease to anyone else if they were to become sick," said Labus.</p><p>Generally, the contact tracer won't ask for additional contacts unless they happen to call someone who is sick or has a confirmed case of the virus. They will help ensure the contact has the resources they need to isolate themselves, if necessary. The contact tracer may continue to stay in touch with that person over the next 14 days.</p><p>"We follow the percentage of people that were contacts, then converted into being actual cases of the virus. It's an important marker to help us understand what kind of transmission happens in our community and how to control the virus," said Gullett.</p>
Why You Should Participate (and What Happens If You Don’t)<p>A <a href="https://www.thelancet.com/journals/laninf/article/PIIS1473-3099(20)30457-6/fulltext" target="_blank">Lancet study</a> from June 16, which looked at data from more than 40,000 people, found that COVID-19 transmission could be reduced by 64 percent through isolating those who have the coronavirus, quarantining their household, and contacting the people they may have exposed.</p><p>The combination strategy was significantly more effective than mass random testing or just isolating the sick person and members of their household.</p><p>However, contact tracing is only as effective as people's willingness to participate, and a small number of people who've contracted the coronavirus or were potentially exposed are reluctant to talk.</p><p>"Contact tracers have all been hung up on, cussed at, yelled at," said Gullet.</p><p>The hesitation to talk to contact tracers often stems from concerns over privacy — a serious issue in healthcare.</p>
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Climate Explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change.
If you have a question you'd like an expert to answer, please send it to email@example.com
What was the climate and sea level like at times in Earth’s history when carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was at 400ppm?<p>The last time global carbon dioxide levels were consistently at or above 400 parts per million (ppm) was around <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/nature14145" target="_blank">four million years ago</a> during a geological period known as the <a href="http://www.geologypage.com/2014/05/pliocene-epoch.html" target="_blank">Pliocene Era</a> (between 5.3 million and 2.6 million years ago). The world was about 3℃ warmer and sea levels were higher than today.</p><p>We know how much carbon dioxide the atmosphere contained in the past by studying ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica. As compacted snow gradually changes to ice, it traps air in bubbles that contain <a href="https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/annals-of-glaciology/article/enclosure-of-air-during-metamorphosis-of-dry-firn-to-ice/09D9C60A8DA412D16645E6E6ABC1892F" target="_blank">samples of the atmosphere at the time</a>. We can sample ice cores to reconstruct past concentrations of carbon dioxide, but this record only takes us back about a million years.</p><p>Beyond a million years, we don't have any direct measurements of the composition of ancient atmospheres, but we can use several methods to estimate past levels of carbon dioxide. One method uses the relationship between plant pores, known as stomata, that regulate gas exchange in and out of the plant. The density of these stomata is <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/095968369200200109" target="_blank">related to atmospheric carbon dioxide</a>, and fossil plants are a good indicator of concentrations in the past.</p><p>Another technique is to examine sediment cores from the ocean floor. The sediments build up year after year as the bodies and shells of dead plankton and other organisms rain down on the seafloor. We can use isotopes (chemically identical atoms that differ only in atomic weight) of boron taken from the shells of the dead plankton to reconstruct changes in the acidity of seawater. From this we can work out the level of carbon dioxide in the ocean.</p><p>The data from four-million-year-old sediments suggest that <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2010PA002055" target="_blank">carbon dioxide was at 400ppm back then</a>.</p>
Sea Levels and Changes in Antarctica<p>During colder periods in Earth's history, ice caps and glaciers grow and sea levels drop. In the recent geological past, during the most recent ice age about 20,000 years ago, sea levels were at least <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/292/5517/679.abstract" target="_blank">120 meters lower</a> than they are today.</p><p><span></span>Sea-level changes are calculated from changes in isotopes of oxygen in the shells of marine organisms. For the Pliocene Era, <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2004PA001071" target="_blank">research</a> shows the sea-level change between cooler and warmer periods was around 30-40 meters and sea level was higher than today. Also during the Pliocene, we know the West Antarctic Ice Sheet was <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/nature07867" target="_blank">significantly smaller</a> and global average temperatures were about 3℃ warmer than today. Summer temperatures in high northern latitudes were up to 14℃ warmer.</p><p>This may seem like a lot but modern observations show strong <a href="https://journals.ametsoc.org/jcli/article/23/14/3888/32547" target="_blank">polar amplification</a> of warming: a 1℃ increase at the equator may raise temperatures at the poles by 6-7℃. It is one of the reasons why Arctic sea ice is disappearing.</p>
Impacts in New Zealand and Australia<p>In the Australian region, there was no Great Barrier Reef, but there may have been <a href="https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/BF02537376.pdf" target="_blank">smaller reefs along the northeast coast of Australia</a>. For New Zealand, the partial melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is probably the most critical point.</p><p>One of the key features of New Zealand's current climate is that Antarctica is cut off from global circulation during the winter because of the big <a href="https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.3402/tellusa.v54i5.12161" target="_blank">temperature contrast</a> between Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. When it comes back into circulation in springtime, New Zealand gets strong storms. Stormier winters and significantly warmer summers were likely in the mid-Pliocene because of a weaker polar vortex and a warmer Antarctica.</p><p>It will take more than a few years or decades of carbon dioxide concentrations at 400ppm to trigger a significant shrinking of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. But recent studies show that <a href="http://nora.nerc.ac.uk/id/eprint/521027/" target="_blank">West Antarctica is already melting</a>.</p><p>Sea-level rise from a partial melting of West Antarctica could easily exceed a meter or more by 2100. In fact, if the whole of the West Antarctic melted it could <a href="http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.695.7239&rep=rep1&type=pdf" target="_blank">raise sea levels by about 3.5 meters</a>. Even smaller increases raise the risk of <a href="https://www.pce.parliament.nz/publications/preparing-new-zealand-for-rising-seas-certainty-and-uncertainty" target="_blank">flooding in low-lying cities</a> including Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington.</p>
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East Coast leads the way<p>"There is enormous opportunity, especially off the East Coast, for wind. I am very bullish," said former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. "Market excitement is moving towards offshore wind. I haven't seen this kind of enthusiasm from industry since the Bakken shale boom," he said.</p><p>Offshore wind initiatives require excessive upfront spending: a 250 MW venture costs about $1 billion, based on International Energy Agency data, but as costs fall the tipping point after which costs fall faster gets nearer</p><p>"The opportunity has been created by Northeastern states seeing the large price declines for offshore wind in Europe," says Cohen. Onshore wind is historically the lowest cost renewable resource, but is at its most expensive in the Northeast, he adds. "But costs are falling slower than for other technologies," he says.</p>
Jobs and Coastal Revitalization<p>U.S. wind energy now supports 120,000 US jobs and 530 domestic factories. A study by the University of Delaware predicted that the supply chain needed to build offshore turbines to feed power to seven East Coast states by 2030 would generate nearly $70 billion in economic activity and at least 40,000 full-time jobs. An American Wind Energy Association's (AWEA's) March 2020 report estimated that developing 30,000 MW of offshore wind along the East Coast could support up to 83,000 jobs and $25 billion in annual economic output by 2030.</p><p>Having said that, not all of the jobs are American jobs. The offshore wind developers with commercial leases in the US are all foreign companies. There is growing interest from the shipbuilding sector in the Gulf of Mexico in partnering with offshore wind companies to provide services. As a result, some of the US oil trade associations have submitted comments supporting certain aspects of offshore wind. "However, it is unclear to what extent offshore wind developers plan to use US vessels and crew, and the existing projects did not incorporate US vessels or labor at all," Hawkins says.</p>
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