All Creatures Great and Small (and live or frozen)

September 9th, 2015 in Biorepository Profile, Featured Article

AMNH’s Biobank manager Julie Feinstein wrote the book on Urban Wildlife (literally)

For author and fellow ISBER member Julie Feinstein, manager of the biobank at the American Museum of Natural History, wildlife is where you find it.  Where Julie finds it is smack in the middle of her hometown and workplace of New York City.

New York, the “City that Never Sleeps,” is of course well known as a place that gives new meaning to the term “urban wildlife.” But it’s more than a haven for nocturnal humans, and wildlife there means more than painted women in Times Square, or pigeons, rats, and bedbugs.  It is on her daily morning journey to work, a walk from her home in Brooklyn to the subway and another mile along Central Park to the AMNH, that this wildlife enthusiast finds a wonderful world of creatures great and small (well, mainly small). It is a world so fascinating that she has written a book about it, the Field Guide to Urban Wildlife.

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Julie Feinstein’s book, available through Amazon.com

Julie also shares her everyday discoveries along with her unique insights on the wild kingdom that resides in our own hometowns from her wonderful blog at www.urbanwildlifeguide.net (bookmark it now, and then continue reading).

When she finally arrives at her workplace, and puts on her lab coat, it’s a new world of wildlife biodiversity that awaits her, a “frozen menagerie.”

The biobank Julie manages, The Ambrose Monell Collection for Molecular and Microbial Research (also known as Ambrose Monell Cryo Collection, or AMCC) at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City is an archive of animal tissue biopsies and DNA, and an active lending library of genetic resources for animal research.  Museum scientists and students collect materials for the AMCC, and they also receive donations from researchers at other institutions worldwide.

The AMCC is part of the Institute for Comparative Genomics at AMNH, under the direction of George Amato. Julie, pictured below, has managed the AMCC since 2006 with the help of two technicians and occasional interns and volunteers.

The Ambrose Monell Collection

The collection was established in 2001 for visionary as well as practical purposes.  One of the collection’s goals is to support research to conserve animal species and populations, and some samples of rare and endangered animal tissues are stored for posterity.  Since 2009, for instance, the AMCC has been a repository for and broker of loans of samples from threatened and endangered species collected non-lethally or by salvage in the United States National Parks; the National Park Service Special Collection at the AMCC so far includes bald eagle, Channel Island fox, Karner blue butterfly, and California condor samples.

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Ambrose Monell Cryo Collection Manager Julie Feinstein at work.  © AMNH/R. Mickens

The AMCC is also a central repository for non-human animal papillomaviruses (camel pox, manatee pox, and more).  It boasts a large collection of butterflies and moths from Costa Rica, many of which are newly discovered and have not yet been named.  Likewise, the collection of armored pine scale insects is probably the largest in the world; many of them are new to science as well, and are awaiting their formal scientific names.  The AMCC also houses tissue samples collected over many years by American Museum of Natural History departments – for instance, the rare fossil Coelacanth fish (Latimeria chalumnae), thousands of fish recently collected on expeditions to the African Congo, and more fish specimens from around the world from the Ichthyology Department.  The AMNH Ornithology Department has about 25,000 samples of frozen bird tissue housed at the AMCC, and there are thousands more of mammals, reptiles and amphibians, and invertebrates of all kinds.

The practical goal of the collection is to dependably store samples in good condition for future use.  The entire collection is frozen in liquid nitrogen vapor and thereby spared the vicissitudes of unattended storage in mechanical freezers that is often the condition in academic laboratories.  The AMCC’s museum setting provides onsite taxonomic expertise, and the orderly concentration of expertly identified samples allows researches easy access.

The staff of curatorial assistants and  collections manager works full time to curate the collection and process loans and acquisitions.  The AMCC ships between 1500 and 2000 vials of tissue or DNA every year to researchers at their request, after review by museum scientists.  The samples are used mainly for DNA extraction and sequencing for studies in taxonomy and conservation genetics.  The collection is growing at an average of 10,000 samples per year.  Current holdings are just over 100,000 samples.

The Ambrose Monell Collection at the American Museum of Natural History  © AMNH/D. Finnin

The Ambrose Monell Collection at the American Museum of Natural History © AMNH/D. Finnin

Tissues are stored in 1.8 ml cryovials with barcode labels.  The liquid nitrogen vapor freezers operate without electricity; when fully charged, they can maintain ultra cold temperatures for about five weeks without intervention.  The oxygen level in the collection is constantly monitored for human safety; O2 monitors are linked to a remote security control office, to local alarms, and to emergency fans which respond by replacing room air with fresh air from outside when activated by a low oxygen reading.

Future writing projects for Julie

As we noted, Julie’s interests outside of the collection are centered on wildlife – birdwatching, hiking, and nature photography.  “When I am not busy saving the planet at work,” she jokes, “I am usually outside enjoying it.”  Julie stays busy as a wildlife writer: she is currently working on a book about animal mating habits for the University of Chicago Press, featuring familiar animals – some charismatic like pelicans and starfish, some notorious like rattlesnakes and scorpions, and some historically associated with sex like storks and oysters. It is expected to go to press this year.  Julie’s next writing project is a book about the AMCC, tentatively called Genes on ice at the Museum: A history of and operator’s guide to a frozen tissue collection.

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