Specimen Preservation Can Prevent Next Zoonotic Pandemic

The Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda at the American Museum of Natural History
The Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda at the American Museum of Natural History
Jocelyn P. Colella and Bryan McLean*

Imagine yourself as the first naturalist to stand in a place where little recorded scientific knowledge exists, like Alfred Russel Wallace in the Malay Archipelago or Alexander von Humboldt in the Americas in the early 1800s. The notes you record will expand humanity's scientific knowledge of the natural world, and the specimens of plants and animals you collect are destined to be used for centuries to describe past and present biodiversity and make new discoveries in biomedicine and beyond.

Now, imagine if those specimens were never collected.

That's what it's like if samples from the field are not archived. Natural history museums are the guardians of specimens, ensuring their future availability to the scientific community on shelves, in libraries and through curated online databases. Yet, despite scientists continuing to sample the natural world, many specimens are not ending up in biorepositories. If specimens are not archived, the next generation of scientists will inevitably have to reinvent the wheel, spending more time and money resampling the world's species and geography to answer future questions.

There's a variety of reasons that specimens don't get saved, including insufficient museum-based training among newer generations of scientists, poor funding of natural history collections and a lapse in data priorities from organizations that fund and disseminate scientific knowledge.

In a new paper published in the journal BioScience, we outline how existing loopholes in U.S. federal data policies, backward data priorities by scientific journals and a culture of data ownership have made it too easy for research specimens to be discarded. This problem stands to hamstring scientific progress. But, it's not too late to change.

When archived in museums, specimens – literally, the bones, skins and tissues of biodiversity – can be used and reused to answer new scientific questions over time, including many of societal concern. An all-too-familiar example these days is the use of preserved tissues to trace the origins of zoonotic diseases – that is, diseases that come from animals. Most emerging diseases in people are zoonotic, including COVID-19, rabies, MERS and Ebola.

Properly preserved wildlife specimens, often collected for a completely different purpose – wildlife conservation or ecological research, for example – make museum biorepositories a vital player in public health research. Each archived sample can be used to identify the wildlife sources of a disease, monitor changes in disease prevalence and distribution over time, and identify environmental variables that may lead to spillover into people.

The origins of COVID-19 have been harder to pinpoint.

In the early 1990s, an unknown lethal virus jumped into humans, killing 13 people in the American Southwest. Mammal specimens, originally sampled for other reasons and preserved at the Museum of Southwestern Biology, were used by researchers to identify the pathogen as a hantavirus and its wildlife source as deer mice. Museum specimens also provided evidence that the virus had been circulating in Southwestern rodent populations for over a decade, and its emergence in humans was linked to El Niño climate cycles. In this way, museum collections provide hard evidence for rapid, scientifically informed public health guidance.

Unfortunately, the origins of COVID-19 have been harder to pinpoint – in part because the number and diversity of specimens available to the scientific community, particularly from Asia and other remote regions, is decreasing.

The U.S. government has started to prioritize genomic data security, but it is not the first to recognize the importance of these data. Currently, the majority of American genetic data is owned by foreign entities, most notably Russia and China, as a consequence of lax international biosecurity measures and substantial foreign investment in genomics and biomedicine.

In response, the National Institutes of Health Genomic Data Sharing Policy now promotes archiving molecular sequence data (that is, DNA and RNA) generated from tissue samples.

This policy is a step in the right direction, but it fails to address equivalent archival requirements for specimens – the raw material for many DNA sequences used in biodiversity and biomedical research. The irrevocable loss of specimens poses a major risk to national security, public health and science.

three rows of animal skulls

Wolverine (Gulo gulo) crania archived at the Museum of Southwestern Biology for continued scientific use. Jocelyn P. Colella, CC BY-ND

Other federal agencies are also taking steps in the right direction, but there is room for improvement. For example, recent updates to the U.S. Geological Survey's data policies extend "FAIR" principles to species – meaning specimens must be Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable. USGS also holds the specimen's collector responsible for ensuring its long-term care. Although these policies apply to USGS scientists, they're a good model of specimen stewardship for the entire scientific community.

Unfortunately, in extreme cases, the same policy also allows specimens collected with federal funds to be destroyed if deemed "no longer of value or potential use to USGS." Given the irreplaceable nature of specimens, we argue that destruction is rarely justifiable. Instead, preservation of specimens in museums at the conclusion of a project better aligns with national mandates to ensure open publication of federal data and helps meet the responsibility of making these data available to the public.

As federal guidelines take shape, scientists themselves have a responsibility to ensure responsible specimen archival to foster the democratization of biological science through increased access. One place to act may be during the publication of research papers – a cornerstone of the scientific enterprise.

More than half of the top 100 journals in ecology, evolution, behavior and systematics mention or require the permanent archival of DNA sequences. But fewer than one-fifth have similar requirements for specimens. If specimens are preserved, DNA sequences can always be regenerated.

Inconsistent data requirements across journals mean that authors can skirt the responsibility of archiving specimens by sending their work to journals with looser policies. During the peer-review process of both grant proposals and research papers, scientists – as editors and reviewers – have an opportunity to encourage responsible specimen archival.

There is a persistent ethos of data ownership, rather than stewardship.

Inconsistent specimen archival may also reflect the broader approach to science, much of which is passed down from early Western naturalists – like Wallace and von Humboldt. There is a persistent ethos of data ownership, rather than stewardship, born from competition among scientists that ultimately fosters a fear of being scooped.

The famous 19th-century correspondence between Charles Darwin and Wallace, which prompted Darwin to quickly finalize his own writings on natural selection, is one example of such competition. But the tension over "who found it first" is still with scientists today. Museums have protocols in place to allay many of these fears, including delayed data release policies and temporary embargoes that allow researchers to finish projects before their data are made available to the public.

We and our colleagues have proposed guidelines aimed at turning the corner on downward trends in specimen preservation. We recommend integrating specimen stewardship plans into existing requirements for data management plans, by treating specimens as the primary data they are. Early collaboration, budgeting and planning between researchers and natural history museums will be essential to ensure that physical space and financial resources are available to store new collections. Normalizing specimen archival with museums will build a rich foundation of genetic resources for the next generation of scientists.The Conversation

*Jocelyn P. Colella, Assistant Professor of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and Assistant Curator of Mammals, University of Kansas and Bryan McLean, Assistant Professor of Biology, University of North Carolina – Greensboro

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!