Museums Are Putting Ancient DNA To Work for Wildlife
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A University of Cincinnati graduate oversees the new state-of-the-art genetics lab that opened this year as part of the Cincinnati Museum Center’s $228 million renovation.
Heather Farrington earned her doctorate in biological sciences from UC, where she charted the family trees of Galapagos finches and used the latest DNA analysis to gain fresh insights into century-old museum specimens. Today, Farrington is applying skills she learned at UC to her role as the museum’s curator of zoology. She organizes exhibits, maintains its vast behind-the-scenes collection and supervises the new genetics lab in the museum at Cincinnati’s Union Terminal.
The lab works with researchers and government agencies on a variety of projects that require DNA analysis, from conserving wildlife to improving our understanding of the natural world.
Farrington and UC biology professors Kenneth Petren and Lucinda Lawson authored a study of finch populations that was published recently in the journal Conservation Genetics. Moreover, at UC Farrington also realized what a valuable resource museum collections are for genetic research. For her dissertation, she examined museum specimens gathered more than 100 years ago to understand how Galapagos finch populations have changed over time.
Farrington developed many of the important lab techniques she uses at the museum while conducting research at UC between 2004 and 2011, Petren said.
Farrington’s colleague, museum collections manager Emily Imhoff, explained how the sensitive equipment works. The lab keeps DNA samples in refrigerators, including one set to a chilly minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit. Scientists can identify the concentration of DNA, amplify the sample and sequence it to understand the lineage and relationships of species.
Recently, the museum’s lab has worked on conservation projects such as saving the Allegheny woodrat, a small rodent that is in decline from Indiana to New Jersey. In Ohio it’s found in only one place, the Edge of Appalachia Preserve about two hours southeast of UC. The lab analysis found that Ohio’s woodrats are maintaining their genetic diversity so far despite their geographic isolation, Imhoff said. She also has studied the genetics of Ohio’s crayfish and a beautiful yellow-and-black songbird called a hooded warbler.
Farrington also manages the behind-the-scenes collection at the museum’s enormous Geier Collections and Research Center, a nondescript building known for the family of woolly mammoth sculptures standing watch along Fifth Street. Here the museum stores many of its scientific and historic collections — a vast menagerie of preserved mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and insects.
The warehouse-sized space holds shelf after shelf of taxidermy specimens: African lions, Bengal tigers, enormous moose and diminutive antelope along with an ark of rarities such as armored animals called pangolins, a scaly anteater. A fierce golden eagle with its wings spread wide sits next to a beautiful bird of paradise showing off its feathered finery on a branch.
Some specimens are hunting trophies such as bearskin rugs that were donated through bequests or estates. While they don’t necessarily make good museum displays, Farrington said, they are valuable for educational and other purposes. Swatches of polar bear fur demonstrate the animal’s extreme adaptations. The fur of the white bears is mostly transparent and is set against black skin that helps absorb the polar sun’s stingy warmth.
“Albinos are always a unique specimen so we have albino squirrels and deer — different examples of leucism and albinism,” she said.
Each week volunteers at the museum help prepare new donations of roadkill owls or unfortunate birds that flew into windows. Besides the true-to-life mounts, the museum keeps a vast catalog of individual specimens stored in rows of cabinets for scientific research.
Perhaps the museum’s rarest zoology specimen is a large penguin-like bird called a great auk. These flightless seagoing relatives of the puffin were hunted to extinction 20 years before the Civil War. The museum’s specimen might have been the very last living great auk in the world, taken during the last commissioned auk-hunting expedition in 1844. The museum is investigating that question now using genetic testing. The museum acquired the rare specimen in the 1970s. The auk was sold at auction in the mid-1800s from a lot of four specimens that went to museums around the world. Two went to museums in Great Britain.
“One went to Los Angeles. One came here. We’ll have it sampled to see if it indeed was the last known great auk,” Farrington said.
Today, museums such as the Cincinnati Museum Center play a major role in conserving wildlife. Farrington’s mentors at UC say there is nobody better to oversee that task.
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