DNA and the Modern Museum
In 1996 the Museum built a DNA laboratory at the Abbotsford Annexe with financial assistance from the R. E. Ross Trust and the Sunshine Foundation. This supported Museum researchers in their own work, and also allowed them to offer expertise and training to zoology students wanting to use DNA analyses in their research. Students from Melbourne, La Trobe and Deakin Universities quickly seized the opportunity to undertake PhD and Honours projects in evolutionary and population genetics based at the Museum. Research expanded beyond birds to include bats, possums, crabs, bryozoans, and the list continues to grow. DNA-based research cuts across the traditional taxonomic boundaries in museums. Students working on marine invertebrates interact and exchange ideas with those working on parrots or possums. They not only increase the variety and quantity of research output from the laboratory, they bring new sources of funding and contribute to a dynamic and stimulating research atmosphere.
Staff in the DNA laboratory also work closely with various fauna agencies across Australia on projects dealing with the conservation genetics of threatened species such as the regent honeyeater, mountain pygmy possum, western whipbird, golden-shouldered parrot and black cockatoos, to name a few. The Museum's DNA research was instrumental in establishing the black-eared miner as a species worthy of conservation and identifying the Christmas Island hawk owl as a distinct species.
The Museum's expertise and growing reputation in bird DNA has also involved it in forensic work for the Australian Customs Service in their battle to prevent the smuggling of eggs into and out of Australia. When caught, the smugglers often smash the eggs, making prosecution difficult. Unfortunately for the smugglers, we can obtain DNA from whatever embryonic material is left on the shell fragments and then identify the smuggled species.
Museum staff working in the new laboratory have developed particular techniques for obtaining DNA from old Museum specimens, providing an important link between traditional collections and modern techniques of analysis. DNA-based research is not a replacement for morphological study, but rather its complement. Unfortunately, some DNA researchers have suggested that specimen-based research is obsolete. More disturbing is the suggestion that we do not need to collect specimens of some of the better known groups of animals, such as birds and mammals, any more, we just need to take a sample for DNA research. In reality, DNA-based studies can only proceed where the foundations have been laid by sound specimen-based research. The foundations of taxonomy and systematics will always be specimen-based; DNA sequences alone will not replace the need to refer to and study museum specimens. Furthermore, DNA-based taxonomies provide an objective framework from which to trace the evolution of morphological characters.
Museum-based research is benefiting from the objective approaches to systematics brought by DNA-sequence data. Similarly, DNA researchers can learn from museum practices. Many published DNA studies do not include adequate documentation on these specimens. Often there is very little information on the geographical locality of the specimens examined. Such information is automatically included when morphological analyses are published. Museums can play an important role in introducing similar rigour and credibility to all DNA work.
Museum Victoria now has extensive cryogenic freezer facilities for its frozen tissue bank which, although currently specialising in Australasian birds, is expanding its holdings of other vertebrates and invertebrates. The new building at Carlton Gardens has a fully equipped DNA laboratory with a wonderful view of the Exhibition Buildings.
The research undertaken in the Museum's DNA laboratory attracts wide
media and public interest and some of this is featured in exhibitions
such as Darwin to DNA and their supporting publications and websites.
Dr Les Christidis is Head of the Sciences Department at Museum Victoria. He has been involved in the development of Melbourne Museum exhibitions and of the Planetarium at Scienceworks. He undertakes genetic based research on the origins and evolution of Australian birds and over the past 20 years has established himself as an internationally recognised authority in this field. He is also an Associate Professor in the Department of Genetics at the University of Melbourne where he lectures on molecular phylogenetics.