Marian Litvaitis, professor emeritus at the University of New Hampshire, decided to retire in December 2019. And she wondered what would happen to her worms.
Not just any worms: marine polyclad flatworms. They are visually striking, from the skunk-colored ruffles of Pseudobiceros gratus to the gold-rimmed fuchsia body of Pseudoceros ferrugineus.
dr. Litvaitis had studied the worms for decades and traveled to the Caribbean and Indo-Pacific seas to collect hundreds of samples of their tissue and DNA, all of which were stored in the minus 80 degrees Celsius freezer in her lab. But the labs at her school are evacuated as soon as the researchers leave, and there are often no systems in place to ensure that irreplaceable collections of scientific secrets don’t end up in a dumpster next to old papers and broken lab equipment, which they often do. dr. Litvaitis recalled some of her colleagues scrambling to find a place for hundreds of hagfish swatches or shelves of bobcat skulls.
Taking them home wouldn’t work either.
“I didn’t want to keep them in the freezer in my basement,” said Dr. Litvaitis about her flatworms, adding that blackouts are not uncommon in her 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 would like to have her collection of samples of 466 worms.
That 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 rid retired researchers of their hard-earned marine collections that have nowhere else to go. The project now includes thousands of donated samples from three researchers.
“Few people have plans for their collections,” said Dan Distel, director of the center. “We don’t think about these things until the time comes, and then it might be a little too late.”
Biological collections may seem static, conjuring up images of pinned butterflies or pots of pickled fish. But they need space and maintenance — empty chambers for the bobcat skulls and ultra-cold freezers for flatworm DNA — ongoing costs that universities can try to reduce once the collectors’ research days are over.
Collections associated with specific research projects typically lack funding for long-term maintenance and storage, according to a 2020 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. These collections may be “orphaned” — preserved without maintenance or attention, which can irreparably damage the collection, the report said. And the scientific community is haphazardly notified when these collections may be discarded or otherwise abandoned.
The fate of such collections is often idiosyncratic, depending on a collector’s relationship with a natural history museum, the space, the funding, how the new material can contribute to an institution’s mission, the quality of the collection presented as a gift. being offered,” James Collins, an evolutionary ecologist at Arizona State University and co-chair of the committee behind the report, in an email.
dr. Thistle is not aware of other programs such as the Genome Resource Rescue Project, but added that researchers sometimes contact museums to donate their collections after retirement. In 2017, octogenarian entomologists Lois and Charlie O’Brien donated their private collection of more than a million weevils and 250,000 grasshoppers to Arizona State University.
“However, it can be quite difficult for researchers to find homes for collections that have no public display value,” said Dr. Thistle. Whole weevils are pleasing to the eye, but frozen tissue samples are visually less noticeable.
Preserving collections for posterity is a tenet of good science, said Dr. Thistle. It is also good for conserving natural resources.
Collecting biological samples requires removing organisms from their natural environment, an inherently destructive practice. “It’s a Wild West mentality,” said Dr. Thistle. He said some researchers collected samples “without first thinking, ‘Has anyone else collected these materials?'”
The more samples preserved, the fewer organisms may have to die for science in the future.
Collecting is also expensive, often done on grant-funded research expeditions. H. William Detrich, professor emeritus of biochemistry and marine biology at Northeastern University, is donating some of his collection of Antarctic fish, including the bright-blooded kingfisher, to the center. To acquire this collection, one had to travel to Palmer Station in Antarctica and cruise on a research vessel.
“The logistics and support of my single program for 30 years, it’s millions and millions of dollars,” said Dr. detrich. “I feel morally and ethically obligated to make sure they get used to it in the future.”
In the eyes of Dr. Thistle are the collections of Dr. Detrich particularly urgent to preserve, as they capture a snapshot in time in Antarctica — an ecosystem that is one of the fastest-warming regions on Earth.
That may make such collections the only record of what biodiversity looked like in previously pristine ecosystems, allowing scientists to compare populations over time and the extent of degradation.
Over the course of her career, Dr. Litvaitis watched the tropical waters she sampled from the Caribbean deteriorate due to overfishing and climate change. This destruction is one of the reasons she chose to focus on many-lined flatworms, which rely 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 species of worm taken from different geographic locations — as a record of where the worms once lived.
“Just to know what we have before we kill it,” said Dr. Litvaitis.
The Ocean Genome Legacy Center makes its samples available to researchers from around the world. Open collections allow new researchers to confirm or challenge results from samples and ensure more robust findings, said Dr. Thistle.
dr. Distel hopes the collections rescue program can also inspire researchers who aren’t about to retire to proactively think about the future of their samples. Planning for retirement is difficult when juggling grant applications, paper submissions, and actual research. “It’s kind of a rat race,” said Dr. detrich. “You’re trying to keep your head above water.”
But the sooner researchers start thinking about conservation, the sooner they can start documenting their collections in ways that are meaningful and accessible to the general community, said Dr. Thistle. “So that when they come to the end of their careers, it can be a trivial task to donate materials to a collection,” he added.
After retiring in late 2021, Dr. Detrich still has his samples for donation, comparing the samples in his freezer with handwritten notes made in fishing logs and dissection records. “You might imagine that in about 30 years, exactly where monsters were could get a little precarious,” he said.
dr. Detrich started out with four full freezers full of samples; he is now on one and a half freezer.
The Ocean Genome Legacy Center did not have enough space to store all of Dr. Detrich, so he sent some to colleagues who are actively investigating. One of his former colleagues, Jacob Daane, now a researcher at the University of Houston, is heating ice fish embryos to predict how climate change could affect their development.
dr. Litvaitis is happy that he is no longer the caretaker of the fragments of 466 long-dead worms. “I’ve turned my interests to other things,” she said, such as writing her grandson’s bedtime stories, researching her family history, and knitting.
The center has already digitized its collection, so anyone who wants to study its marine polyclads can do so. “That’s the way we can grow science,” said Dr. Litvaitis. “What would we have without the work of previous people?”