Museums and Microbial Curation: About Time!

By way of Jonathan Eisen, we discover that museums are starting to hire microbiology curators. I’m very excited about this, probably more excited than Eisen (and he’s a pretty excitable guy). In part, I’ve always loved museums and have thought that building microbiological collections for museums would be a neat thing to do. But there are also some vital scientific needs that would be met by museum curation.


What makes microbiological curation really exciting to me is the advent of cheap genomic methods. If you’re able to culture it, we can sequence its genome, which is a pretty good way to characterize things. And over the last couple of decades, museums have moved into phylogenetics in a big way, so let’s bring on the phylogenomics.
Related to phylogenomics, we now can also characterize which genes are expressed (‘turned on’) and how much under various conditions by RNA sequencing. This would also be a great dataset to build for a wide range of organisms. Another cool technology is single-cell sequencing, where if you can isolate a single cell, you can often sequence much of its genome, even if you can’t grow it.
Finally, as sequencing costs continue to decrease, more and more microbiology projects will sequence microbial DNA straight from samples (e.g., a clump of soil or, erm, poop). To make sense of these data, we really need more microbial genomes to identify these short sequences we generate. And one organisms from each species won’t do–in bacteria, two bacteria from the same species will often only share 70% of their genes (or less). We’ll need lots.
The other thing about microbial curation is that we’re actually dealing with ‘living specimens.’ If we can culture it (even if it’s hard to do), then we can cryogenically store it, and then later thaw out the ‘microbcicle’ and grow it. Can’t do that with a T. rex (probably a good thing…).
Besides, I want to go to museums and see exhibits that focus on microbes….

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One Response to Museums and Microbial Curation: About Time!

  1. heteromeles says:

    Have you checked out the Field Museum’s Underground Adventure? It’s not real microbes, but it does contain quite a lot of microbial information.
    Since museums are supposed to be repositories of our culture(s), I think it’s perfectly appropriate that we extend our tolerance for microbial and fungal cultures as well.

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