Search for a retirement home for 466 Frozen Flatworm Fragments
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 frills of Pseudobiceros gratus to the gold-rimmed fuchsia body of Pseudoceros ferrugineus.
dr Litvaitis had been studying the worms for decades, traveling to the Caribbean and Indo-Pacific to collect hundreds of tissue and DNA samples, all of which were kept in her lab’s -80 degree Celsius freezer. But the labs at her school are cleared as soon as the researchers leave, and there are often no systems in place to ensure irreplaceable collections of scientific secrets don’t end up in a dumpster with old papers and broken lab equipment, which they often do. dr Litvaitis recalled that some of her colleagues struggled to find a place for hundreds of hagfish patterns or shelves of bobcat skulls.
Bringing her home wouldn’t work either.
“I didn’t want to keep them in the freezer in my basement,” said Dr. Litvaitis on her flatworms, adding that power outages are not uncommon in her New Hampshire neighborhood. She reached out to the Ocean Genome Legacy Center, a marine DNA genome bank near Boston that’s part of Northeastern University, to see if she would like her collection of samples from 466 worms.
That made the collection of Dr. Litvaitis on the first entry in a new program at the center called the Genome Resource Rescue Project, which aims to free retired researchers from their hard-earned marine collections who have nowhere else to go. The project now includes thousands of donated samples from three researchers.
“Very few people have plans for their collections,” said Dan Distel, the center’s director. “We don’t think about these things until the time comes, and then maybe it’s a little too late.”
Biological collections can appear static, conjuring up images of pinned butterflies or jars of pickled fish. But they require space and maintenance — empty rooms for bobcat skulls and ultra-cold freezers for flatworm DNA — ongoing costs that universities might try to pass on once the collectors’ research days are over.
According to a 2020 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, collections tied to specific research projects typically lack funds for long-term preservation and preservation. These collections may be “orphaned” — they are kept without maintenance or attention, which can damage the collection beyond repair, the report said. And the scientific community is arbitrarily notified when these collections are discarded or otherwise abandoned.
“The fate of such collections is often idiosyncratic, depending on a collector’s relationship with a natural history museum, location, funding, how the new material might contribute to an institution’s mission, the quality of the collection offered as a gift,” James Collins, an evolutionary ecologist at Arizona State University and co-chair of the committee behind the report, said in an email.
dr Distel is unaware of other programs like the Genome Resource Rescue Project, but added that researchers have sometimes approached museums about donating 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 planthoppers to Arizona State University.
“However, it can be quite difficult for researchers to find a home for collections that do not have 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 principle of good science, said Dr. Thistle. It is also good for conservation of 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 that are preserved, the fewer organisms may have to die for science in the future.
Collection is also expensive and is often done on research expeditions funded by grants. H. William Detrich, professor emeritus of biochemistry and marine biology at Northeastern University, is donating part of his collection of Antarctic fish, including the clear-blooded icefish, to the center. Acquisition of this collection required trips to Palmer Station in Antarctica and cruises on a research vessel.
“The logistics and support of my only program for 30 years is millions and millions of dollars,” said Dr. Detrich. “I feel a moral and ethical obligation to ensure they are used in the future.”
In the eyes of Dr. Distel are the collections of Dr. Detrich are particularly urgent to preserve as they represent a snapshot in Antarctica – an ecosystem that is one of the fastest warming areas on earth.
That could make such collections the only record of what biodiversity was like in formerly pristine ecosystems, and allow scientists to compare populations over time and levels of degradation.
During her career, Dr. Litvaitis observes how the tropical waters she sampled in the Caribbean have been degraded by overfishing and climate change. This destruction is one of the reasons she chose polyclad flatworms, which rely on specialized habitats such as coral reefs and can easily ingest pollutants through their body walls. dr Litvaitis donated several duplicate samples — samples of the same species of worm taken from different geographic locations — as evidence of where the worms once lived.
“Just to know what we have out there 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 dispute results from samples and ensure more robust results, said Dr. Thistle.
dr Distel hopes the collection rescue program can also inspire researchers not close to retirement to think proactively about the future of their specimens. Planning for retirement is difficult when you juggle grant applications, paper submissions, and actual research. “It’s kind of like a rat race,” said Dr. Detrich. “You’re trying to stay afloat.”
But the sooner researchers start thinking about conservation, the sooner they can start documenting their collections in a way that’s meaningful and accessible to the general community, said Dr. Thistle. “So that at the end of their career, donating materials to a collection can be a trivial task,” he added.
After his retirement at the end of 2021, Dr. Detrich still keeps his samples for the donation by matching the samples in his freezer with handwritten notes in fishing logs and dissection records. “You can imagine that over about 30 years, it could get a little precarious about where samples were,” he said.
dr Detrich started with four freezers full of samples; he only has a freezer and a half left now.
The Ocean Genome Legacy Center didn’t have enough space to store all of Dr. Detrich, so he sent some to colleagues who are doing active research. One of his former colleagues, Jacob Daane, now a researcher at the University of Houston, heats icefish embryos to predict how climate change might affect their development.
dr Litvaitis is happy to no longer be the keeper of the fragments of 466 long-dead worms. “I’ve shifted my interests to other things,” she said, like writing bedtime stories for her grandson, researching her family history, and knitting.
The center has already digitized their collection so anyone interested in studying their marine polyclads can do so. “In this way we can promote science,” said Dr. Litvaitis. “What have we without the work of earlier humans?”