Human health mysteries can be solved by this archive of preserved animals.
In the spirit of Halloween, deep within the Museum of Texas Tech University is a scene that could be straight out of a horror movie.
Thick glass jars pack the innumerable shelves of one room – they hold some 30,000 animal specimens, floating in amber liquid. An adjacent cavernous space holds 125,000 bats, mice, rabbits and other mammals, each painstakingly dissected, stuffed with cotton and laid out in drawers, as well as 4.6 million preserved insects, arachnids and other invertebrates.
From there, twists and turns through labyrinthine passageways lead to a nondescript wooden door. Only the code panel hints at its security level – it's the perfect place to hide something extremely valuable. Inside are five enormous silver vats, each big enough for two people to climb inside, not that they'd want to. They're freezers filled with liquid nitrogen, and together, they hold more than 400,000 samples – the hearts, livers, kidneys, muscles, spleens, lungs, bloods and intestines of almost every animal there. A slightly smaller vat cordoned off by signs and neon tape contains more than 3,000 radioactive specimens collected from Chernobyl.
Hidden away from the public, this place appears to be shrouded in mystery. Most people have never seen it, and many don't even know it exists. But Robert Bradley, its director, wants that to change.
Because in reality, this is a scientific research facility that archives biological samples for research purposes. It's the Natural Science Research Laboratory (NSRL), and it holds the keys to the past, present and future of biological diversity on earth within its walls.
You see, this windowless place is, in itself, a window to another time. Researchers can use the specimens in the NSRL to examine anything from the genetic history of a species to viruses already circulating in animals that may one day affect humans. In addition to answering the everyday questions scientists ask, the work happening inside the NSRL has the potential to be life-changing.
“Back in the late 1990s, I got talked into working with a virologist on an arenavirus study, so I collected some rats from outside Lubbock,” said Bradley, a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and the museum's curator of mammals, pointing to one of the large, gray, preserved rodents. “We described a brand new virus. It had been here, but nobody knew about it. So, there are all kinds of things lurking in here that we just haven't looked for.”
Clues found in the DNA of the NSRL's specimens can answer all kinds of questions researchers might ask one day.
“This is incredibly important scientific infrastructure that is a very rich resource,” he said. “As humans continue to modify the biosphere, in particular impacting climate change and accelerating land-use change, these collections will be exceedingly important as a baseline for how things used to be, thereby allowing us to measure our impacts. They will provide an important baseline that can be used to define the goal of any sort of restoration efforts.”
A deadly conundrum
The collections also can help solve mysteries.
Bradley tells of a hantavirus outbreak in New Mexico in the early 1990s. Active, healthy adults in their 20s and 30s were dying, and scientists and public health officials were puzzled. Then a claim emerged that some kind of biological weapon must have escaped from the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Having narrowed down the probable carrier to rodents, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) turned to the nation's two oldest tissue collections: the NSRL, whose mammal specimens date as far back as the 1930s, and the University of New Mexico's Museum of Southwestern Biology, which was started by an NSRL alumnus. The CDC requested samples of a certain mouse species, and the NSRL loaned them several hundred tissue samples.
The CDC scientists found the virus in those mice, not only in the newer specimens but also older ones.
“It turned out this virus had been around for a long time,” Bradley said. “It wasn't new. It wasn't a biological weapon. It wasn't something the Army was doing or Los Alamos was doing. It was a natural virus that was in rodents.
“I was actually a grad student here at Texas Tech in 1986,” he added. “We caught a whole bunch of those mice by hand, by picking up hay bales and grabbing mice as they came out, and a whole bunch of those later tested positive. So why didn't we all get sick?”
With the virus' source solved, a new question emerged: Why was it suddenly a problem?
“It just happened to be following an extremely wet year,” Bradley explained. “There were a lot of grass seeds, a lot of pinyon nuts, and the mice populations really grew, and so the virus became very prevalent in the community. These mice lived in houses and cabins, and that's where people were being exposed to it.”
It was a human health mystery solved by an archive of biological research specimens.
“We're like a library for natural history,” Bradley emphasized. “When you go into a library, there are a bunch of books going as far back in time as we can go, and it's a resource. We serve as a resource for documenting, and having representatives of, the biodiversity that's around us.
“I can take that bat right there, cut off a little piece of his skin or a sliver of toenail, and I can isolate DNA from him back at least 50 years. I can tell what the genetics of a population looked like. Now, that is a sample size of one, so it's not going to tell me a whole lot, but we can go back in time and see what that looks like. For the species with 100 specimens, we can do a really good estimate.”
That's why having a large collection is important. Texas Tech's is the fourth largest university mammal collection in the country, but with its rapid growth, Bradley expects the NSRL to move into third place within the next few years.
Early last year, the NSRL celebrated the addition of its 150,000th mammal specimen: a black-and-white Spotted Bat, species Euderma maculatum. It was a memorable species for the milestone because, although the NSRL has about 40,000 bat specimens, it had only one other Spotted Bat. That one was caught almost 50 years earlier.
“This bat's pretty rare,” Bradley said of their new Spotted Bat. “In Texas, they only occur in the Big Bend area; this guy came from the Cloudcroft area.”
Stevens is studying the correlation between elevation and biodiversity in New Mexico's Lincoln National Forest.
“When collecting bats for this research, we very fortuitously caught one of the most elusive bat species in North America, the Spotted Bat, Euderma maculatum,” he said. “This species has an unmistakably unique morphology. In particular, it has three large white spots on its dorsum and some of the longest ears of any North American bat species. It's hard to catch, forages very late in the night and thus, is not found in many collections. As such, it makes a valuable contribution to the NSRL.”
Not so scary
Less than two years after adding its 150,000th mammal specimen, the NSRL has catalogued another 5,000.
“During that extreme cold spell we had last winter, thousands of bats froze to death all over the state, so we had individuals sending us bats, Texas Parks & Wildlife biologists were sending us dozens of bats,” Bradley said. “Some of our growth comes through opportunistic collections like that, some of it comes through field trips that we take ourselves, when we specifically go out to collect specimens for research purposes.
“In the past, we got a lot of bats from the state health department who tests them for rabies, and after they tested them, they would send the bats to us for identification.”
It's fitting that these specimens ultimately enable a wide variety of zoonotic disease research projects.
“Right now, of course, we're all writing proposals to conduct COVID-19-related research,” Bradley said. “We want to see if our bats are carrying not only the coronavirus strains we're seeing right now, but there are probably a lot of strains out there we haven't detected yet.”
From zoonotic disease research to climate change and more, Stevens and Bradley hope the collections will be used to inform and mitigate a wide variety of human challenges in the future.
GoiSo while the NSRL may seem at first glance like a frightening place, the research it makes possible might just save us from things that are far scarier.