Superstars of STEM: Finding hidden secrets inside a museum
Rebecca Johnson is aiming to make a wealth of animal information available to researchers around the world. Dion Pretorius reports.
One of only 17 countries classed as “mega-diverse”, Australia has the unenviable reputation of having the highest recent mammal extinction rate on the planet.
The Tasmanian tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus), pig-footed bandicoot (Chaeropus ecaudatus), eastern hare-wallaby (Lagorchestes leporides) and long-tailed hopping mouse (Notomys longicaudatus) are among more than 20 mammal species that have become extinct on the continent during the past 200 years.
Recent expert listings for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) indicate around 80 Australian species are critically endangered, and researchers fear that without better knowledge and protection, these species may suffer the same fate.
However, clues to their protection may lie in better collection and analysis of genetic and specimen data. One great example of this is the recently published koala genome, the result of a large collaborative project led by Rebecca Johnson, director of the Australian Museum Research Institute, in Sydney.
The team sequenced the whole genome of the koala (Phascolarctos cinereus), involving more than 26,000 genes, and this information is now directly informing new developments to treat diseases in the animal, and how to manage populations to conserve vital genetic diversity.
An extension of this is the recently announced Oz Mammals Genomics (OMG) Initiative, a large collaboration aiming to collect genetic information from many of Australia’s unique mammals, including the extinct species that are now only found in museums.
This work will sequence additional Australian mammal genomes, and understand at the DNA level how species are related, revealing how the information can be used for conservation.
Johnson and her colleagues are contributing their expertise, and the specimens in the museum’s collection, to help build the dataset.
“The sequencing of the human genome in 2001 has led to a revolution in our understanding of our own genome allowing us to unlock many new ways to understand and treat disease and illness in humans,” she says.
“There is no reason why these technologies can’t be used with our wildlife, too, allowing us to unlock important information that will guide best practise in conservation and management.”
Her team is also working on a pilot project to use CT scanning to create high resolution images of important specimens in the museum’s collection, allowing them to unlock new information from specimens and make it accessible to anyone with a computer and internet connection.
Having high-resolution, accessible and enduring measurements of these “type” specimens – the actual animals designated as the ultimate reference for each species –cis extremely valuable, says Johnson.
“With this data, we are building a comprehensive online resource for research and education of the natural sciences, and we are at the forefront of best practice for museums globally,” she explains.
“It opens up the possibility for remote 3D printing of our specimens by researchers or schools, which will greatly enhance the impact of, and access to, our collection.
“We hope this means more researchers globally accessing this vital data, using them for their own research, so together we can work to understand and address the issues impacting Australia’s wildlife.”
Rebecca Johnson is among 30 Superstars of STEM featured in this weekly series prepared by Science & Technology Australia (STA) - to learn more about the program, visit the STA website.