Museums are embracing technologies, such as DNA sequencing, to both enhance understanding of their collections and showcase scientific research to the public. Many museums around the world now have molecular laboratories. DNA sequencing has many useful applications for museum research; for example, it can be used to distinguish new species, determine the evolutionary relationships between species and identify the region of origin of artefacts such as kahu kiwi (kiwi feather cloaks). However, it has only recently been appreciated that care should be taken in the construction and use of museum molecular labs. Why is the situation for museums different to universities and other institutions where molecular biology labs are commonplace?
Museums are storehouses of important biological collections and these can become contaminated with copies of DNA that are generated in molecular laboratories. A technique routinely used in molecular labs in the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). PCR is an extremely efficient method to produce millions of copies a targeted region of DNA. If one drop (1/10th of 1 ml) of a PCR is mixed into an Olympic swimming pool then one drop of this highly diluted mixture removed it will still contain around 400 copies of DNA!
In a museum setting, if care is not taken, these millions of copies of DNA could contaminate the biological specimens in museum collections. These specimens, such as animal bones and pressed plants, typically contain small amounts of their own DNA because DNA degrades over time, starting with the death of the organism. It is very easy for the low levels of DNA to become swamped by the copies of DNA generated by PCR. Future attempts to use contaminated specimens for genetic research may be compromised with the contaminating PCR products detected instead of the specimen’s own DNA. So how do we avoid this problem?
Together with Leon Perrie, a colleague in Te Papa’s Natural Environment team, I recently suggested that strict protocols should be developed for constructing and using molecular laboratories within museums. These include having labs and collections in different buildings, or at least having separate ventilation systems for each, and having a one-way movement of people, equipment and specimens from collection areas to labs. We hope that museum researchers take up these suggestions in order to protect the research potential of their important, and often irreplaceable, collections of biological specimens.