Museum specimens as windows to the past

Natural history collections offer and alternative way to study evolution over reasonably long-time scales. They provide a historical record of specimens against which modern samples can be compared offering unique resources to study evolution directly.

Humans have altered global ecosystems during the last centuries. With their temporal dimension, herbaria and their microbial communities supply the otherwise sparse long-term data necessary for monitoring ecological and evolutionary changes in the age of rapid global change. The sheer size of herbaria, combined with their increasing digitization and the ability to extract historical DNA (hDNA) from the preserved biological collections, renders them invaluable resources for understanding ecological and evolutionary species' responses to global environmental change and allows inferring these responses back in deep time. Our current research has two main directions:

  • we highlight how biological collections can inform about long-term effects on organisms and their microbial communities. We are interested in the  four of the main drivers of global change: pollution, habitat change, climate change and invasive species.
  • we interpret collection as ‘windows into the past’ to study and test key hypotheses about the evolution and dispersal of organisms using large-scale data sets obtained through high-throughput sequencing. We synthesize this information from deep time phylogenies to elucidate major evolutionary transitions.

We believe being consistent with the historical focus on the functional utility of biological collections we have an important opportunity to help ensure global food and ecosystem security by expanding research and education programs. This draws attention to the often neglected but still prominent feature of historical collections: the astonishing diversity with which museums bring together heterogeneous and idiosyncratic elements of technoscientific culture and knowledge in order to address phenomena from life sciences to societal interaction.


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