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How Museum Collections Advance Knowledge of Human Health | Smithsonian Voices

The National Museum of Natural History’s 146 million objects and specimens are studied by researchers worldwide who wish to perceive all facets of the pure world. (Chip Clark, Smithsonian)

Collecting has a protracted historical past courting again to historic occasions. The Egyptians collected books within the Library of Alexandria. The Medici Family in Renaissance Florence collected artwork. Now, children at college accumulate Pokémon playing cards. The neighbor down the road collects postage stamps, and the Smithsonian collects scientific specimens.

Unlike different collections, the National Museum of Natural History’s 146 million artifacts and specimens do greater than accumulate mud within the museum’s show instances. They are essential sources of data for scientific analysis being carried out all all over the world.

To have a good time World Health Day, listed below are six methods the museum’s collections have contributed to our understanding of well being and medication.

Mosquito collections assist researchers stop illness

Black and white striped mosquito on a green leaf

The mosquito species Aedes aegypti can carry dengue fever, Zika virus and yellow fever. They unfold illness simply to people as a result of they breed in areas near people, like water-filled containers, flowerpots, fountains and barrels. (Kmaluhia, CC-BY-SA-4.0)

Summer brings heat climate, barbeques and swimming. But it additionally brings one of the deadliest bugs on the earth, mosquitoes.

Mosquitoes transmit ailments like Chikungunya virus, dengue fever, West Nile virus, yellow fever and malaria. They trigger the dying or debilitation of multiple million individuals every year. In hopes of stopping outbreaks of these lethal ailments, scientists use museum collections to be taught extra in regards to the taxonomy, biology, and distribution of mosquitoes that transmit ailments to people.

The National Museum of Natural History, in partnership with the Walter Reed Biosystematics Unit (WRBU), maintains the biggest mosquito assortment on the earth with over 1.7 million specimens. The assortment helps researchers not solely higher perceive distribution, environmental preferences and particular mosquito biology, but in addition how the bugs transmit illness. This data, together with different instruments developed by WRBU, helps scientists making an attempt to stop future outbreaks of mosquito-borne diseases.

Leech collections enhance anticoagulants

Yellow and black leech attached to a white surface

The leech Hirudo medicinalis was probably the most generally used species for bloodletting. They had been harvested nearly to the purpose of extinction and stay a threatened species as we speak. (Robyn Jay, CC-BY-SA-2.0)

In the 1700 and 1800s, prescriptions usually included leeches. These bloodsucking animals had been used for a remedy known as bloodletting, the place blood could be faraway from a affected person to treatment an assortment of diseases. While purposefully attaching leeches to an individual could appear barbaric, leeches are nonetheless utilized in medication as we speak.

Medicinal leeches are FDA authorized medical gadgets which might be most frequently used after digit reattachments, pores and skin grafts and different reconstructive surgical procedures. Leeches secrete an anticoagulant from their salivary glands close to their mouths which stops blood from clotting whereas they feed. The anticoagulant — together with the leech siphoning off blood that will turn out to be trapped in a reattached finger, nostril, ear or toe — retains oxygenated blood flowing into the tissues which promotes therapeutic.

Leeches are additionally utilized in a contemporary model of bloodletting to deal with uncommon blood circumstances like polycythemia, an abnormally excessive pink blood cell rely, and hemochromatosis, when blood has an excessive amount of iron.

The National Museum of Natural History has greater than 200 specimens of 28 species of medicinal leeches. Scientists examine these specimens to higher perceive the animal’s evolutionary relationships and the way the variability of anticoagulants they make can be utilized in human and veterinary medication.

Bird collections assist scientists examine previous pandemics

Jar with a beige bird preserved in fluid

Alcohol preserved specimens, like this Green-winged Teal, can be utilized to check the pathogens that will have been circulating earlier than the Great Influenza. (Smithsonian)

In 1918, a lethal pressure of the influenza virus swept the world. Scientists estimate that one-third of the world’s inhabitants turned contaminated and no less than 50 million individuals worldwide died. But regardless of being the deadliest pandemic within the final century, not a lot is thought in regards to the evolutionary historical past of the flu pressure and why it was so harmful.

Scientists know that the 1918 flu got here from birds. They are actually finding out how carefully associated the 1918 pressure was to flu strains present in wild birds. Using fluid preserved chook specimens that had been collected within the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Smithsonian researchers are extracting viral samples from the birds to match it to the 1918 flu. These moist specimens retain smooth tissues and different bodily supplies that make this genetic testing attainable. Researchers hope to unlock the genetic secrets and techniques of the flu strains present in wild birds to higher perceive how the 1918 flu developed into the lethal pandemic that it was.

Parasite collections can inform organ transplant procedures

Purple, magnified parasitic worms on white background

Onchocerca volvulus, pictured right here, can take over a 12 months to totally mature. It is barely after the grownup worms turn out to be succesful of producing massive numbers of offspring that the contaminated particular person will begin to really feel signs. (Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, CC-Zero)

Parasites are sometimes portrayed because the villains in a narrative, and whereas having a parasite shouldn’t be often a great factor, they will reveal rather a lot about human well being.

The nematode Onchocerca volvulus is a human parasite answerable for a illness known as Onchocerciasis or river blindness. To stop transmission of the illness, organizations worldwide tried to eradicate the worm within the mid-Nineteen Nineties. In 2016, Guatemala absolutely eradicated the worm, however earlier than that occurred, the museum collected worms from the nation. Those specimens symbolize one thing that not exists, however they’re additionally an essential useful resource for researchers finding out how the parasite can stay of their host for many years by evading detection from the host’s immune system.

Learning how these parasites cover inside a number, might be a breakthrough in medication and inform procedures, like organ transplants, the place docs are purposely suppressing the immune system.

Botanical collections guarantee readability in drug discovery

Forest of yew trees on a sunny day

Taxol is an anti-cancer drug that comes from a compound discovered within the bark of a western yew tree, pictured above. Doctors use Taxol to deal with breast most cancers, ovarian most cancers, non-small cell lung most cancers, pancreatic most cancers and AIDS-related Kaposi sarcoma. (Nancy Lankford, CC0)

Cancer is a tricky beast to battle. Because of the illness’s range, researchers are at all times on the hunt for brand spanking new anti-cancer brokers to broaden remedy choices. Scientists from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) usually flip to nature in search of new medicine.

NCI scientists accumulate plant samples within the discipline to display screen them for cancer-fighting compounds. After the samples are recognized and screened, the NCI sends voucher samples to the United States National Herbarium on the National Museum of Natural History. Voucher samples, which symbolize an organism saved someplace for additional examination and examine, are important to drug discovery.

Botanical voucher samples doc the supply materials of a drug discovery. When researchers search for a selected plant sooner or later, they will evaluate their specimen to the voucher pattern to ensure they’ve collected the right plant. The U.S. National Herbarium’s voucher samples be sure that new anti-cancer brokers will be discovered and correctly recognized again and again.

Mineral collections reveal dangers of asbestos publicity

Magnified, gray and white asbestos minerals

“Asbestos” is an over-arching time period that refers to 6 distinctive minerals – chrysotile, amosite, crocidolite, anthophyllite, tremolite and actinolite. Chrysotile, pictured right here, is the most typical mineral known as “asbestos.” (U.S. Geological Survey)

Asbestos publicity is linked to a number of lung ailments. But it took a very long time for scientists to grasp the risks that asbestos publicity poses.

The dangers of asbestos publicity had been first studied within the early 1900s. Dr. E.R.A. Merewether printed the primary medical examination of employees within the asbestos business that confirmed a hyperlink between publicity and illness in 1930. Since then, numerous research have been carried out on asbestos utilizing mineral samples from the National Museum of Natural History’s assortment. The museum’s asbestos-like minerals helped scientists analysis the consequences of asbestos on the human physique and ensure the connection between asbestos publicity and completely different lung ailments

Related tales:
Six Videos that Put the Pandemic in Context
Get to Know the Scientist in Charge of Smithsonian’s 1.9 Million Mosquitoes
Why We Need to Save the Parasites
Get to Know the Scientist Studying Ancient Pathogens on the Smithsonian
This Smithsonian Scientist is on a Mission to Make Leeches Less Scary




National Mosquito Collection


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