Natural Sciences

How natural history museums should play a bigger role in finding the sources of wildlife pathogens

Written by Mamie M. Arndt

In a paper in the journal mBio, they argue that “host vouchering,” the practice of saving and archiving specimens thought to be host to a virus, must become part of the study of animal-borne pathogens.

The team says vouchering, which gives other researchers the chance to repeat experiments and expand their monitoring of the spread of new pathogens, isn’t common enough.

But biologists could have an ace up their sleeve, if they choose to use it: museums.

In the piece, the scientists point out ways that natural history museums and other specimen repositories have helped researchers figure out a pathogen’s source in wild animals.

Take hantaviruses, a family of viruses that can jump from rodents to people. In 1993, seven seemingly healthy young people in the southwestern United States died of respiratory failure. Since the deaths didn’t appear to be from a known disease, researchers turned to rodent specimens stored in museums and research archives in New Mexico and Texas to determine what had caused the outbreak.

Scientists finally pinned the deaths on virus-infected deer mice and other rodents and were able to isolate the virus, which eventually was named Sin Nombre virus, within a matter of months.

By integrating sample preservation and collection into the research process, the authors say, scientists and curators can add a tool to humanity’s arsenal against animal-borne pathogens.

The lack of vouchering “has limited our ability to respond to the current COVID-19 pandemic,” says study author Cody Thompson, who serves as mammal collections manager at the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, in a news release.

He says the practice “should be considered the gold standard in host-pathogen studies as a key part of pandemic preparedness.”

About the author

Mamie M. Arndt