Find a nursing home for 466 frozen flatworm fragments

Marian Litvaitis, professor emeritus at the University of New Hampshire, decided to retire in December 2019. And she wondered what would...

Marian Litvaitis, professor emeritus at the University of New Hampshire, decided to retire in December 2019. And she wondered what would happen to her verses.

Not just any worms: marine polyclad flatworms. They are visually striking, skunk-colored frills of Pseudobiceros gratus with a fuchsia body edged in gold Pseudoceros ferrugineus.

Dr Litvaitis had studied the worms for decades, traveling the Caribbean and Indo-Pacific seas to collect hundreds of samples of their tissues and DNA, all of which were stored in the freezer at minus 80 degrees. Celsius from his lab. But his school’s labs are emptied once the researchers leave, and there’s often no system in place to ensure that irreplaceable collections of arcane science don’t end up in a dumpster with old papers and broken lab equipment, which they often do. Dr Litvaitis recalled some of his colleagues scrambling to find a place for hundreds of hagfish samples or shelves of bobcat skulls.

Bringing them home wouldn’t work either.

“I didn’t want to keep them in my basement freezer,” Dr. Litvaitis said of his tapeworms, adding that power outages are not uncommon in his New Hampshire neighborhood. She contacted the Ocean Genome Legacy Center, a marine DNA genome bank near Boston that is part of Northeastern University, to see if it might want her sample collection of 466 worms.

This made the collection of Dr. Litvaitis the first entry in a new program at the center called the Genome Resource Rescue Project which hopes to relieve retired researchers of their hard-earned marine collections who have nowhere else to go. The project now holds thousands of samples donated by three researchers.

“Very few people have plans for their collections,” said Dan Distel, the center’s director. “We don’t think about these things until the time is right, and then it might be a bit too late.”

Biological collections can seem static, evoking images of pinned butterflies or jars of pickled fish. But they do require space and maintenance — empty rooms for bobcat skulls and ultracold freezers for flatworm DNA — ongoing expenses that universities can try to offload once research days finished collectors.

Collections tied to specific research projects typically lack funding for maintenance and long-term storage, according to a 2020 report by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. These collections can be “orphaned” – stored without maintenance or care, which can damage the collection beyond repair, according to the report. And the scientific community is notified at random when these collections may be discarded or otherwise abandoned.

“The fate of such collections is often idiosyncratic, depending on the relationship a collector has with a natural history museum, space, funding, how new material can contribute to the mission of an institution, of the quality of the collection given as a gift,” James Collins, an evolutionary ecologist at Arizona State University and co-chair of the committee behind the report, said in an email.

Dr Distel is unaware of other programs like the Genome Resources Rescue Project, but added that researchers have sometimes approached museums to donate their collections after retirement. In 2017, octogenarian entomologists Lois and Charlie O’Brien make a donation their private collection of over a million weevils and 250,000 leafhoppers at Arizona State University.

“However, it can be quite difficult for researchers to find homes for collections that have no public display value,” Dr. Distel said. Whole weevils are pleasing to the eye, but frozen tissue samples are less visually striking.

Preserving collections for posterity is a principle of good science, said Dr. Distel. It is also good for the conservation of natural resources.

Collecting biological samples requires removing organisms from their natural environment, an inherently destructive practice. “It’s a Wild West mentality,” Dr. Distel said. He said some researchers collected samples “without first thinking, ‘Has anyone else collected these materials?'”

The more samples preserved, the fewer organisms that may have to die for science in the future.

Collecting is also expensive, often done during grant-funded research expeditions. H. William Detrich, professor emeritus of biochemistry and marine biology at Northeastern University, donates part of his collection of Antarctic fish, including the light-blooded icefish, In the center. Acquiring this collection required a trip to Palmer Station in Antarctica and cruises on a research vessel.

“The logistics and support for my unique 30-year program is millions and millions of dollars,” Dr. Detrich said. “I feel morally and ethically obligated to ensure they are used in the future.”

In Dr Distel’s eyes, Dr Detrich’s collections are particularly urgent to preserve because they capture a snapshot in time of Antarctica – an ecosystem that is one of the fastest warming areas on Earth.

This may make these collections the only records of what biodiversity looked like in once pristine ecosystems, allowing scientists to compare populations over time and degrees of degradation.

During her career, Dr. Litvaitis has observed the degradation of the tropical waters she has harvested in the Caribbean due to overfishing and climate change. This destruction is part of the reason she chose to focus on polyclad flatworms, which depend on specialized habitats such as coral reefs and can readily absorb pollutants through their body walls. Dr Litvaitis donated several duplicate samples – samples of the same worm species taken from different geographic locations – as a record of where the worms once lived.

“Just to find out what we have there before we kill it,” said Dr Litvaitis.

The Ocean Genome Legacy Center collects its samples available to researchers around the world. Open collections allow new researchers to confirm or challenge findings from samples and ensure more robust results, Dr. Distel said.

Dr. Distel hopes the collections rescue program can also inspire researchers who are not close to retirement to start thinking proactively about the future of their samples. Planning for retirement is challenging while juggling grant applications, paper submissions, and the actual research. “It’s kind of a frantic race,” Dr. Detrich said. “You try to keep your head above water.”

But the sooner researchers start thinking about preservation, the sooner they can start documenting their collections in ways that are meaningful and accessible to the wider community, Dr. Distel said. “So when they come to the end of their career, it can be a trivial task to donate materials to a collection,” he added.

After retiring at the end of 2021, Dr. Detrich is still organizing his samples for donation, matching samples in his freezer to handwritten notes taken from fishing logs and dissection records. “You can imagine that over about 30 years, exactly where the samples were could get a bit risky,” he said.

Dr. Detrich started with four freezers full of samples; only one and a half freezers left.

The Ocean Genome Legacy Center didn’t have enough room to collect all of Dr. Detrich’s samples, so he sent some to colleagues conducting active research. One of his former colleagues, Jacob Daane, now a researcher at the University of Houston, heats icefish embryos to predict how climate change might affect their development.

Dr. Litvaitis is happy to no longer be the guardian of the fragments of 466 long-dead worms. “I steered my interests towards other things,” she said, such as writing stories for her grandson, researching his family history and knitting.

The center has already digitized its collection, so anyone wishing to study its marine polyclades can do so. “This is how we can develop science,” said Dr Litvaitis. “Without the work of previous people, what do we have?”

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Newsrust - US Top News: Find a nursing home for 466 frozen flatworm fragments
Find a nursing home for 466 frozen flatworm fragments
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