Hanner, Robert. 2001. Announcing the Ambrose Monell Collection. Dros. Inf. Serv. 84: 209-211.

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Announcing the Ambrose Monell Collection for Molecular and Microbial Research, Vouchering Drosophila Specimens in the 21st Century


Hanner, Robert.  Curatorial Associate, American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West @ 79th St. New York, NY 10024;  Phone: (212) 769-5663;  Email: hammer@amnh.org

Biological specimen collections are essential for taxonomic identification as vouchers for the application of names and for vouchers of species used in research projects.  Museums have the fundamental role of building and maintaining biological collections for documentation of biodiversity (Engstrom et al., 1999).  Many researchers are in the habit of depositing voucher specimens of the organisms they study in natural history museums providing them with both a long term record of their work, and a mean to circumvent possible taxonomic changes which could alter the interpretation and validity of their results (Thomas, 1994).  Despite this, a growing body of sequence-based exploratory work is rendered irrelevant to any further examination, as some researchers do not deposit a voucher specimen of the organism they studied in a reference collection (Ruedas, et al., 2000).  The crucial significance of collections is that they make possible the interpretation of published data in scientific journals such that it can be reconfirmed in other field or laboratory studies.  Without voucher specimens, it is not possible to confirm that subsequent studies, or even parallel studies elsewhere, involve the same species (Hawksworth and Mound, 1991).

The apparition of new technologies on the collection landscape led The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) to develop a special type of research collection.  Launched in May 2001, the Monell Collection is the Museum's newest collection containing the cryopreserved tissues from a wide range of species.  The AMNH seeks to establish the Monell Collection as a long-term, specimen-based record of global biodiversity at the molecular level while simultaneously cataloging the world’s comparative molecular genetic and genomic research initiatives.  The goal of the Museum is to develop tissue collections that are as synoptic and diverse as traditional dried and spirit preserved collections.  The Museum’s frozen tissue collection will validate and support a broad range of research.  Stored tissues are proven to have applications that were completely unanticipated at the time they were collected.  By archiving molecular biodiversity, unique and important research materials will be available to the scientific community in perpetuity.  It will allow scientists, today and in the future, to take full advantage of advances in molecular genetic and genomic technology.

The Monell Collection maintains specimens in an array of liquid nitrogen cooled vats, at temperatures below -150°C.  Tissue samples are indexed using a relational database application program for freezer inventory management (Ioannou, 2000), which uses barcodes to track specimens.  This type of technology is now utilized in both museums (Monk, 1998) and other biodiversity assessment programs (Oliver, et al., 2000).  The computer database tracks each bar-coded entry, noting the specimen’s taxonomic identity, where the specimen was collected and by whom.

The mission of the Monell Collection is to provide uniform and high quality storage of all specimens under documented conditions.  Such implementation will provide researchers with readily available material of high genetic quality, enhancing thus the type and number of assays to be performed on each specimen.  Ensuring that research materials and their associated data are made widely available supports good science.

Going beyond simply preserving tissues, it is vital to provide a context for molecular data.  The genome of an organism contains a vast amount of information, but this information is meaningless unless we understand exactly how it relates to the organism as a whole: what it looks like, where and how it lives, how diseases affect it, etc.  Making such connections often requires the ability to examine the whole organism.  Thus, the AMNH can now voucher traditional morphological specimens, in parallel with molecular samples archived in the Monell facility.  Internally, the Monell Collection will support ongoing genetic research at the AMNH, with a key feature being that all research efforts point back to a final arbiter, a curated specimen in a collection.  This is a service that the Museum wishes to extend to the entire scientific community.  Researchers can assist in the development of the Monell Collection by exchanging, donating or otherwise making available duplicates of authoritatively named and properly preserved specimens used in their research.  For their donation of voucher specimens, researchers will receive Museum accession numbers to refer to in their scholarly publications.

What constitutes a minimally acceptable acquisition?  Biological science at the AMNH centers on the documentation of species and investigation of their evolutionary and ecological relationships.  Relevant specimens should be properly identified, documenting where and when they were collected.  When submitting specimens to the Monell Collection, the Museum requires a letter of transmittal stating that the specimens were legally acquired and that they are the property of the researcher to donate.  Specimen data in electronic format (excel spreadsheet) is preferred, along with digital images, reprints, and any GenBank accession numbers associated with the specimen that would further enhance the value of the acquisition.  Controlled-rate freezing is the most effective method for preserving the widest variety of tissue constituents.  See the molecular voucher specimen preservation protocol (Hanner and Webster, this volume) for details.  For more information on submitting specimens to the Monell Collection, contact the author or email cryolab@amnh.org.

               References:  Engstrom, M.D., R.W. Murphy and O. Haddrath 1999, In:  Managing the Modern Herbarium: an Interdisciplinary Approach.  (Metsger, D., and S. Byers, eds.).  pp 315-330. Elton-Wolf, Vancouver;  Hawksworth, D.L., and L.A. Mound 1991, In:  The Biodiversity of Microorganisms and Invertebrates: Its Role in Sustainable Agriculture. (Hawksworth, D.L., ed.).  pp 17-29. CAB International;  Ioannou, Y.A., 2000, Science 288: 1191;  Monk, R.R., 1998, Museology, Museum of Texas Tech University 8: 1-8;  Oliver, I., A. Pik, D. Britton, J.M. Dangerfield, R.K. Colwell, and A.J. Beattie 2000, BioScience 50: 441-450;  Ruedas, L.A., J. Salazar-Bravo, J.W. Dragoo, and T.L. Yates 2000, Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 17: 129-132;  Thomas, R.H., 1994, Trends in Ecology and Evolution 9: 413-414.