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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The COVID-19 pandemic in the United States is the deepest and longest period of malaise in a dozen years. Our colleagues at the University of Vermont have concluded this by analyzing posts on Twitter. The Vermont Complex Systems Center studies 50 million tweets a day, scoring the "happiness" of people's words to monitor the national mood. That mood today is at its lowest point since 2008 when they started this project.
The Hedonometer measures happiness through analysis of key words on Twitter, which is now used by one in five Americans. This chart covers 18 months from early 2019 to July 2020, showing major dips in 2020. hedonometer.org<p>These same tweets also indicate a potential salve. Before pandemic lockdowns began, doctoral student <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=0P0ZYbIAAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">Aaron Schwartz</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/pan3.10045" target="_blank">compared tweets before, during, and after visits to 150 parks, playgrounds and plazas</a> in San Francisco. He found that park visits corresponded with a spike in happiness, followed by an afterglow lasting up to four hours.</p><p>Tweets from parks contained fewer negative words such as "no," "not" and "can't," and fewer first-person pronouns like "I" and "me." It seems that nature makes people more positive and less self-obsessed.</p><p>Parks keep people happy in times of global crisis, economic shutdown and public anger. Research has also shown that transmission rates for COVID-19 are <a href="https://www.sfchronicle.com/news/article/Is-risk-of-coronavirus-transmission-lower-15287602.php" target="_blank">much lower outdoors than inside</a>. As scholars who study <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=yFzb2EUAAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">conservation</a> and how nature <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=CCnUeN8AAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">contributes to human well-being</a>, we see opening up parks and creating new ones as a straightforward remedy for Americans' current blues.</p>
Park Visits Are Up During the Pandemic<p>According to the Hedonometer, sentiments expressed online started trending lower in mid-March as the impacts of the pandemic became clear. As lockdowns continued, they registered the lowest sentiment scores on record. Then in late May, effects from George Floyd's death in police custody and the following protests and police response once again could be seen on Twitter. May 31, 2020 was the saddest day of the project.</p><p>Recent surveys of park visitors around the University of Vermont have shown people <a href="https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/sd3h6" target="_blank">using green spaces more</a> since COVID-19 lockdowns began. Many people reported that parks were highly important to their well-being during the pandemic.</p>
<div id="4c7e4" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="bc0ac146ab2a94228f32d973fc2ab272"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1289428912879964160" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">#Goldengatepark #sf #quarantinemood https://t.co/9l3ufnbkt6</div> — Suvd (@Suvd)<a href="https://twitter.com/Suvd19486406/statuses/1289428912879964160">1596258783.0</a></blockquote></div><p>The powerful effects of nature are strongest in large parks with more trees, but smaller neighborhood parks also provide a significant boost. Their impact on happiness is real, measurable and lasting.</p><p>Twitter records show that parks increase happiness to a level similar to the bounce at Christmas, which typically is the happiest day of the year. Schwartz has since expanded his <a href="https://arxiv.org/pdf/2006.10658.pdf" target="_blank">Twitter study</a> to the 25 largest cities in the U.S. and found this bounce everywhere.</p><p>Parks and public spaces won't cure COVID-19 or stop police brutality, but they are far more than playgrounds. There is growing evidence that parks contribute to mental and physical health in a range of communities.</p><p>In a 2015 study, for example, Stanford researchers sent people out for one of two walks: through a local park or on a busy street. Those who walked in nature showed <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2015.02.005" target="_blank">improved moods and better memory performance</a> compared to the urban group. And a team led by <a href="https://penniur.upenn.edu/people/eugenia-gina-south" target="_blank">Gina South</a> of the University of Pennsylvania showed in a 2018 study that greening and cleaning up blighted vacant lots in Philadelphia <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.0298" target="_blank">reduced local residents' feelings of depression, worthlessness and poor mental health</a>.</p>
Creative Strategies<p>It isn't easy to create new parks on the scale of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park or the Washington Mall, but smaller projects can expand outdoor space. Options include greening vacant lots, closing streets and investing in existing parks to make them safer, greener and shadier and support wildlife.</p><p>These initiatives don't have to be capital-intensive. In the University of Pennsylvania study, for example, renovating a vacant lot by removing trash, planting grass and trees and installing a low fence cost only about US$1,600.</p><p>Urban green space is most needed in neighborhoods that have lacked funding for parks, especially given <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/08/nyregion/coronavirus-race-deaths.html" target="_blank">COVID-19's disproportionate impact on Black and Latinx people</a>.</p><p>Cities can also create parklike spaces by <a href="https://theconversation.com/with-fewer-cars-on-us-streets-now-is-the-time-to-reinvent-roadways-and-how-we-use-them-140408" target="_blank">closing streets to cars</a>. Many cities worldwide are currently retooling their transportation systems for the post-COVID-19 world in order to <a href="https://thecityfix.com/blog/bicycles-slower-speeds-livable-city-paris-mayor-anne-hidalgo-plans-ambitious-second-term-dario-hidalgo/" target="_blank">reallocate public space</a>, widen sidewalks and make more space for nature.</p><p>Urban designers, artists, ecologists and other citizens can play a direct role, too, creating pop-up parks and green spaces. Some advocates <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-09-15/a-brief-history-of-park-ing-day" target="_blank">transform parking spaces into mini-parks</a> with grass, potted trees and seating for just the time on the meter, to make a larger point about turning so much public space over to cars.</p><p>Or cities can invest a little more. Minneapolis, Cincinnati and Arlington, Virginia, have won <a href="https://www.tpl.org/parkscore" target="_blank">national recognition</a> for their ambitious investments in public park systems. These areas could serve as models for neighborhoods that lack access to parks.</p>
<div id="25fd0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="383f0d2df0237e9359c30dcce6cd6c42"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1276558744835379201" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Looking to safely get outside? Check out the best parks for social distancing in this year's top ten ParkScore citi… https://t.co/HJjEtDsrTD</div> — The Trust for Public Land (@The Trust for Public Land)<a href="https://twitter.com/tpl_org/statuses/1276558744835379201">1593190296.0</a></blockquote></div>
A New Park Deal?<p>The United States has historically driven economic recovery with major infrastructure investments, like the New Deal in the 1930s and the 2009 <a href="https://www.investopedia.com/terms/a/american-recovery-and-reinvestment-act.asp" target="_blank">American Reinvestment and Recovery Act</a>. Such investments could easily include nature-positive spaces.</p><p>Parks are not panaceas, as evidenced by the widely publicized <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/06/nyregion/amy-cooper-false-report-charge.html" target="_blank">racist confrontation between a white woman and a Black birder</a> in New York's Central Park in early July. But Hedonometer data add to a <a href="https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/5/7/eaax0903?utm_source=miragenews&utm_medium=miragenews&utm_campaign=news" target="_blank">growing body of evidence</a> that they provide <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1807504116" target="_blank">clear mental health benefits</a>. Creating and expanding parks also <a href="https://www.nrpa.org/contentassets/f568e0ca499743a08148e3593c860fc5/economic-impact-study-summary.pdf" target="_blank">generates jobs and economic activity</a>, with much of the money spent locally.</p><p>We believe investments in nature are well worth it, offering both short-term solace in difficult times and long-term benefits to health, economies and communities.</p>
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