A CHILLY RECEPTION DNA samples from endangered species, provided by the National Park Service, will soon live, frozen in time (so to speak) in the American Museum of Natural History's cryogenic vats. Image: KATHERINE HARMON
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Deep below the dinosaur displays, a laboratory in the basement of a 19th-century building at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City houses the institute's newest collection: eight large, liquid nitrogen–cooled cryogenic vats. Called the Ambrose Monell Collection for Molecular and Microbial Research, the lab is home to thousands of frozen microscopic genetic samples. And the collection is about to receive some important new—and rare—specimens.
Yesterday, representatives from the National Park Service, which manages land on which many of the U.S.'s nearly 400 endangered vertebrate species live, visited the lab to sign an agreement with the museum to allow for storage of DNA samples from these species in the chilly facilities.
[View Slide Show: Endangered Species Get Iced in Museum DNA Repository]
"These resources are really what's necessary for the kinds of biological studies to better understand the diversity of life on the planet," said George Amato, director of the museum's Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics, at the signing.
But the new partners don't have any Jurassic Park–style intention to reanimate lost lineages. The hope is to use these genetic samples—kept at –256 degrees Fahrenheit (–160 degrees Celsius) by vapor boiling off from liquid nitrogen—to create a baseline to find how species and populations are changing and adapting—or not—to environmental changes. But, Amato noted, "it's hard to predict all of the values of this into the future."
Since the lab opened in 2001 the AMNH has been accepting donated samples (often extracted from blood, bone or muscle tissue) from graduate students and other researchers. Along with curation, the museum also makes small samples available for study free of cost. "A lot of people are very happy to have us take them off their hands," said Julie Feinstein, who manages the collection, which has a total capacity of about a million samples.
"What the museum offers to the Park Service is something that we cannot do for ourselves," said Ann Hitchcock, registrar at the National Park Service, which doesn't have any cryogenic facilities of its own and depends on researchers who store samples offsite at a university or laboratory.