Museum Secrets Unmasked by "Museomics" Technologies

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
February 17, 2009

In museum display cases and dusty drawers worldwide, a burst of new technologies is now unlocking otherwise hidden secrets from fossils, fur, and other relics of a vanished past.

The phenomenon, called museomics, gives new life to musty old objects.

Stephan Schuster, a molecular biologist and biochemist at Pennsylvania State University, coined the term. With colleague Webb Miller, Schuster last year reconstructed most of the mammoth genome using hair that had been sitting in a Russian museum for 200 years.

"No effort was made to freeze it or dry it. It's just hair in a drawer. And [our attempts to recover DNA] worked. This is what gave us the idea for trying to attempt something like museomics," Schuster said.

(Related: "Mammoth Genome Decoded—Clones on the Way?")

"We say, take the effort and look for feathers, horns, hooves, eggshells, you name it. I think what we tried to show is that whatever is in a museum, it's worth taking the effort to go in and look at it systematically."

Warning Signs

Schuster and Miller also studied the Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, a doglike marsupial extinct since the mid-1930s.

The pair used DNA sequencing technology to search for causes of the animal's demise by analyzing preserved specimens, including a century-old thylacine from the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and another that died in the London Zoo in 1893.

(Related: "Extinct or Elusive? Hunting the Tasmanian Tiger"

"One of the striking results was how genetically similar those two individuals were," Schuster said. "They exhibit a lack of genetic diversity, which signals a species on the brink of extinction."

Such genetic warning signs could help scientists identify threats to modern species and possibly prevent extinctions.

Continued on Next Page >>




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