Petri dish to puppetry

Spheres, spirals, rods, corkscrews… bacteria come in strange and beautiful shapes. Our Bacterial World exhibition (19 October 2018 – 28 May 2019) tells the untold story of life on a microscopic scale, and a recent Museum project brought together a research scientist, a group of school students and an artist to explore the patterns, textures and forms of beautiful bacteria. This science and art collaboration led to the creation of three fabulous bacteria-inspired puppets.

Volunteers and puppets in the museum
The puppets let loose in the Museum. Volunteers Tayo, Chantelle and Humaira (hidden behind the blue puppet!), with Carly from the Museum’s public engagement team.

Our Public Engagement team worked with Iffley Academy, a school for students with special educational needs and disabilities in Oxford. The pupils were from the brilliantly-named ‘Jackson Pollock’ class and they fully embraced the bacteria theme, through museum visits, workshops and classroom activities.

As well as visiting Bacterial World, the students had a workshop with Dr Frances Colles, a microbiology researcher from the University of Oxford, where they learnt about the importance of bacteria in their lives. As well as working with the students to create their own bacteria superheroes, Fran talked about her own work and took part in a Q&A, where the students made the most of quizzing a real, live scientist.

One of the character boards that Georgina created with the students

Next, the students spent two days with artist and puppet-maker Georgina Davy, who gave them the chance to experiment with a variety of textiles and techniques, including Japanese shibori dyeing, fringing, plaiting and knotting. The children even created latex faces to ‘personalise’ the bacteria. The pupils worked with Georgina to gather ideas and create mood boards and ‘characters’ for each puppet. She then used these individual pieces to build three giant, bacteria-inspired puppets.

Georgina Davy in her studio, working on the bacteria puppets

Just like the real bacteria that inspired them, the final puppets all have distinctive appearances and styles of movement. One is tall, green and plodding, another is pink, bobbing and quivering. The long, winding Chinese dragon-style puppet is slinky and searching. An artistic interpretation of bacteria, in motion.

Georgina Davy got a lot out of the collaboration and says:

This project has been the most unusual and marvellous project that a puppet maker could work on. Drawing upon scientific information from museum and academic staff that is enhanced and brought to life by students’ imaginations.

This project is unique in that the physical 3D puppet outcomes come from an almost entirely invisible world. Bacteria operate on an unfathomable microscopic scale. I am still finding it remarkable trying to envision this microscopic galaxy of bacteria taking place around us everyday in riots of colour, shape and movement. We cannot see the surreal bacteria forms that wriggle, bounce and swell around us, but they are there, some even tumbling around in forms like Chinese calligraphy. Their secret world is only unlocked by the microscope.

Once the puppets had been revealed to (and played with by) the students, they were transported to the Museum for the finale of the project – a public performance. On Saturday 11 May, three brilliant volunteers, Humaira, Tayo and Chantelle, showed off the work of Georgina Davy and the Jackson Pollock class to Museum visitors. The puppets twisted, shook and wiggled through the aisles, accompanied by percussion – drums and shakers courtesy of volunteers and visitors joining in with the performance.

If you’d like to see more about the Beautiful Bacteria project, we’ve put together a display in the Museum’s Community Case, where you can see original works by the Iffley Academy students. Until 6 August 2019.

The Beautiful Bacteria project was funded by BBSRC.

 

Ruskin 200 Art Competition

By Michelle Alcock, Front of House Deputy Manager

To celebrate the Museum of Natural History and the creativity it inspires, we have launched the Ruskin 200 Art Competition. It opened on Friday 8 February 2019 coinciding with the bicentenary of the birth of John Ruskin; an artist, social thinker, philanthropist and art critic of the 19th century. During the Victorian era, Ruskin’s views advocating for drawing from direct observation, both in his studies of Gothic architecture, and in his use of a detailed descriptive approach to depict nature in art, heavily influenced the design of the Museum.

WA2013.67 John Everett Millais, ‘John Ruskin’
Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

His encouragement led to artists, architects, craftsmen and scientists working together to design the Museum. As a result, they created the neo-Gothic building that stands today as a work of art and a vision of nature in its own right. The Museum’s architecture, decorative details, and collections have served as a source of inspiration for many since it opened in 1860.

Details in the Museum’s architecture, such as this carved capital, were inspired by nature and today provide further inspiration for visiting artists

This year marks the perfect opportunity to showcase the artwork of our visitors. Personally, working on the Front of House team here, I see what an inspiration the building is to our visitors. Every day we spot people of all ages setting up stools, with pencil and sketchbook at the ready, drawing in the Museum. There is so much potential inspiration; beetles carved in stone, vibrant birds’ feathers, glittering gemstones and the intricate decorative ironwork of the building, to name a few.

It is always exciting to see so many of our visitors engaging with the Museum in a creative way, but we rarely see the finished product. I’ve always wanted to know what artwork is created from this point of inspiration. Is it the starting point of a vibrant painting, an intricate pastel drawing or a graphic mixed media collage? The list of possibilities is endless.

A visitor captures the Allosaurus skull on one of our Sensing Evolution tables

Whatever your choice of creative expression, we want to see your interpretation of the Museum and what inspired you, whether it’s the architecture or the collections on display. If you are an amateur or professional artist, and over the age of sixteen, we would like you to submit your artwork to the Ruskin 200 Art Competition.

The competition is open for four months. Do send us images of your final artwork before the closing date of 19 May 2019. Selected artworks from each of the four entry categories will go on display in the Museum during the busy summer holidays.

A visitor taking part in creative activities during our special drawing weekend

Throughout 2019, we’re also running a programme of drawing activities to celebrate Ruskin’s bicentenary. It began with the Ruskin Drawing Weekend on 9 and 10 February, which included lots of different activities to begin the creative process. Look out for our Ready, Steady, Draw! workshops for younger artists coming in May too.

The full competition guidelines, along with further information on the Ruskin-related events we’re running this year, can be found on our website.

Top banner image: WA1931.47 John Ruskin, Design for a Window in the University Museum, Oxford. Image copyright Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

 

How we got bigger, more vulnerable brains

This article is taken from European research magazine Horizon as part of our partnership to share natural environment science stories with readers of More than a Dodo. For more on the development of the brain see our Brain Diaries exhibition site.

One of the major features that distinguishes humans from other primates is the size of our brains, which underwent rapid evolution from about two to three million years ago in a group of our ancestors in Africa called the Australopithecines. During this period, the human brain grew almost three-fold to reach its current size. Scientists know this from skull remains, but have puzzled over how it happened…

This year, the mystery was partially solved by Professor Pierre Vanderhaeghen at the Flanders Institute for Biotechnology in Belgium. Prof. Vanderhaeghen, who was conducting his work as part of the GENDEVOCORTEX project, went on a hunt for the genes that drove the growth of human brains.

Scientists had suspected that brain expansion began in our human ancestors when they evolved genes that are switched on in the foetus, when a lot of key brain development occurs. Prof. Vanderhaeghen therefore looked for genes present in human foetal tissue, but missing from our closest living relatives, apes.

His lab discovered 35 hominid – present only in apes and humans – genes that were active in foetal brain tissue. They then became intrigued by three specific genes – all similar to NOTCH genes, an ancient gene family involved in sending messages between cells and that are present in all animals. They found that the three new genes, collectively named NOTCH 2NL, were created by a “copy and paste error” of an original NOTCH gene.

This error created entirely new proteins which likely helped our ancestors’ cerebral cortex to balloon. This is the part of our brain responsible for our language, imagination and problem-solving abilities. Scientists at the University of California, Santa Cruz, have also identified the NOTCH 2NL genes in DNA from Homo sapiens’ extinct cousins – the Neanderthals and Denisovans.

(The NOTCH 2NL) genes are only present in humans today. They were also present in Neanderthal DNA, but not in chimpanzees
Prof. Vanderhaeghen

Evolution
These genes control the growth rate and differentiation of brain stem cells – the starter cells that multiply and give rise to all neurons in our brain – causing them to seed more nerve cells, which in turn helped to expand brain size. The genes likely led to more neurons and brain tissue in our ancestor’s descendants – including Neanderthals, Denisovans, and modern humans.

Prof. Vanderhaeghen’s research could also help to provide new insights into brain disorders. The US researchers linked genetic faults in DNA that were very similar to NOTCH 2NL, to children born with enlarged brains or small brains. Many of the new human-specific genes are located in a small area of our genome that plays an important role in brain size, according to Prof. Vanderhaeghen.

As DNA in this area closely resembles another part of the genome where it was originally cut and pasted from millions of years ago, errors are more likely, said Prof. Vanderhaeghen. “Patients who have (inherited) deletions in this area tend to be at risk of developing schizophrenia, whereas patients with duplications are more at risk of autistic spectrum disorder,” he said.

Prof. Vanderhaeghen is now studying some 20 of the remaining human-only genes to see how they contributed to the evolution of the human brain.

Something like 40-50% of the Neanderthal genome can still be found in people today.
Prof. Svante Pääbo, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany

The use of genetics to study human evolution in this way is helping to transform our understanding of how our own species compared to our ancestors. Traditionally, scientists have studied extinct species by looking at the fossilised remains of their bones. This was how they discovered the existence of Neanderthals, the extinct human species that lived across Europe and much of Asia before vanishing around 40,000 years ago.

In the last decade, however, scientists have begun to look at the DNA inside these bones. Professor Svante Pääbo, director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, has led the way in sequencing DNA of these extinct humans from small bone fragments.

This allows scientists to compare modern human DNA with that of extinct humans, rather than just living relatives like chimps. Already, the work has revealed some surprising findings – our own species appears to have interbred with some of these ancient relatives during our history.

Ancient humans
Scientists have found that the DNA of every person outside Africa is 1-2% Neanderthal, meaning that these extinct human relatives had offspring with our own ancestors.

An international consortium of researchers is sequencing the 3 billion bases that make up the genome of our closest relative – the Neanderthal. The sequence is generated from DNA extracted from three Croatian Neanderthal fossils using novel methods developed for this project. Image credit – Frank Vinken for Max Planck Society

“Different people tend to carry different pieces of the Neanderthal genome,” said Prof. Pääbo, who is undertaking a project called 100 Archaic Genomes to decipher the DNA of ancient human individuals. “Something like 40-50% of the Neanderthal genome can still be found in people today,” he said.

According to Prof. Pääbo, we retained some of this DNA because it offered an advantage to our ancestors. “Some (of this retained DNA) has to do with the immune system, presumably helping us to fight off infectious diseases.”

The power of genetics to unravel the history of human evolution took a new twist in 2010 after Prof. Pääbo’s lab sequenced DNA from a finger bone fragment found by a Russian archaeological team in a remote Siberian cave.

The analysis revealed the bone belonged to a previously unknown human relative, now called Denisovans after Denisova Cave where the bone was found. This mysterious ancient human species lived at around the same time as Neanderthals, but further east into Asia.

Last year, Prof. Pääbo’s group published DNA sequences from a tooth found in the cave – the fourth ever Denisovan discovered. We now know Denisovan DNA carries more variation than Neanderthal DNA, leading scientists to conclude that they were more widespread than the better-known Neanderthals.

Denisovans left a more impressive stamp on some of us than Neanderthals, according to Prof Pääbo. Their DNA can be found in people across Asia today, while indigenous peoples of Papua New Guinea and Australia may carry up to 5%. Tibetans also carry some Denisovan DNA in their genomes, which has helped them adapt to life at high altitudes where there is little oxygen in the atmosphere.

Prof. Pääbo and his colleagues will soon publish their third high-quality genome – where almost the entire DNA sequence is intact – of a Neanderthal from Siberia. A deciphered genome of this quality allows for better DNA comparisons and could tell us more about the evolution of important genes – such as those linked to the development and function of the brain. It will add yet another puzzle piece to help us understand the history of our closest extinct relatives, according to Prof. Pääbo.

“There may even be other forms of extinct humans out there to be discovered by studying the DNA of the (ancient) bones we find,” he said.

Top image: The skull of a Australopithecus sediba, a species of Australopithecines, who were our ancestors and whose brains started to grow two to three million years ago. Image credit – Australopithecus sediba by Brett Eloff, courtesy Profberger and Wits University is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

*

This post Genetic error led humans to evolve bigger, but more vulnerable, brains was originally published on Horizon: the EU Research & Innovation magazine | European Commission.

One in a million find

By Rachel Parle, Public Engagement Manager

The Museum’s collection of British insects already houses over a million specimens, and now it boasts one more special insect.

Ten-year-old Sarah Thomas of Abbey Woods Academy in Berinsfield, Oxfordshire discovered a rare beetle in her school grounds while taking part in a Museum outreach session. To Sarah’s excitement, the beetle is so important that it has now become part of the collections here at the Museum – and it is the first beetle of its kind to be added to the historically important British Insect Collection since the 1950s.

Sarah Thomas examines her beetle under the microscope with Darren Mann, entomologist and Head of Life Collections at the Museum

Sarah’s class took part in a HOPE Discovery Day, where they were visited by a professional entomologist, learnt about insect anatomy and how to identify and classify specimens, and went on the hunt for insects in the school grounds. HOPE – Heritage, Outreach and Preservation of Entomology – is reaching out to students in state primary schools across Oxfordshire, using the Museum’s British Insect Collection to spark curiosity and foster a love of natural history. It’s all part of a bigger project at the Museum, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, to safeguard this important Collection for the future and engage people with natural heritage.

Sarah brought her family to the Museum to see her beetle in the British Insect Collection.

After some searching, Sarah spotted a 5mm insect lurking under a leaf. To the untrained eye it looked rather like any other tiny shiny beetle, but luckily Darren Mann, Head of the Museum’s Life Collections, was visiting as part of the HOPE team. Darren spotted it as something unusually and took it back to the Museum to get a closer look under the microscope. He was then able to identify it as a False Darkling Beetle.

It’s Anisoxya fuscula, which is rated as Nationally Scarce in Great Britain. We seldom see these outside old forest habitats and this is the first beetle of its kind to be added to the collections for around 70 years.

– Darren Mann, Head of Life Collections

The False Darkling Beetle under the microscope and labelled in the Museum’s British Insect Collection as found by Sarah Thomas

The tiny beetle has been labelled with Sarah’s name and the location of her find, and added to the British Insect Collection. Though she’s very excited to have her specimen in the collections, Sarah admits that she hasn’t always been a big fan of insects:

Before Project Insect I didn’t really like insects, but now I really do.

– Sarah Thomas

Everyone at the Museum is really pleased with Sarah’s fantastic find and we hope it spreads the word to inspire others to become budding young entomologists too.

The beetle Sarah discovered will be stored in this drawer in the British Insect Collection.

What is a tree of life?

A phylogeny? An evolutionary tree? A cladogram? We see the branching lines of these diagrams in many museum displays and science articles, but what do they tell us and why are they helpful?

Duncan Murdock, research fellow, explains. 

You are a fish.

Starfish, jellyfish and cuttlefish are not fish.

Actually, no, there’s no such thing as a fish. Let’s take a step back…

The Jackson 5 – the ultimate singing family tree?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

It all comes down to common ancestry. All life is related, and we can think of it in terms of a family tree (or ‘phylogeny’): Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon and Michael were all Jacksons. United not only by a collective inability to control their feet, but also by common descent – they are all their parent’s children*.

By tracing further and further back in MJs family tree we could define ever larger groups united by common ancestors, first cousins (grandparents), second cousins (great-grandparents), all the way to every human, every mammal, every animal, and eventually all life – we are family (ok, that was Sister Sledge, but you get the point).

In the case of the tree of life, species are at the tips of branches and their common ancestors are where branches meet. A true biological group consists of a common ancestor and all its descendants, and we can use characteristics common between two species to imply common descent. Siblings look a lot like each other because they have inherited much of their appearance via common ancestry (i.e. their parents). In a similar way, two closely related species will share lots of inherited characteristics.

However, things are not quite that simple. Wings of bats, birds and insects are not inherited from a common ancestor but independently evolved for the same purpose, in this case flight. To complicate things further, as species evolve they may lose features inherited from their ancestors that other descendants retain. Snakes have lost their limbs, but still sit in the same group as lizards. These problems can be overcome by looking at many characteristics at once, using genetic information to test predicted relationships, and adding fossils to the tree to track change or loss through time (as in snakes).

Birds, insects and bats have all evolved wings for flight, but did not inherit this feature from a common ancestor. This is a good example of convergent evolution.

So, what about fish? ‘Fish’ is used to refer to pretty much anything that swims in water, but this lifestyle in animals like starfish (a relative of crinoids and sea urchins), jellyfish (a relative of corals) and cuttlefish (a relative of squid and octopus) evolved independently from more familiar fish like cod and carp. So, they’re not really ‘fish’ at all. With that in mind, how can we be fish? Well, the last common ancestor of, say, hagfish, salmon, shark and lungfish, is also the common ancestor of frogs, lizards, cats and us! All four-limbed animals with backbones descend from a fish-like ancestor. To complicate things further some have adapted to life back into the water and look much more like a ‘fish’ again, like dolphins, seals and the extinct ichthyosaur. Without a tree of life, we could not begin to unravel the evolutionary path that lead to all the diversity of life we see today.

The Blue Fin Tuna on display in the Museum is definitely a fish… right?!

You are closer to a chimp than a monkey, closer to a starfish than a snail, and closer to a mushroom than a tree. And, of course, there’s no such thing as a fish, but they still go well with chips.

*Joseph Jackson and Katherine Scruse had ten children, including the members of the Jackson 5, twenty-six grandchildren and several great-grandchildren.

 

What’s in a name?

By Duncan Murdock, research fellow

Whether it’s the Physeter macrocephalus (Sperm Whale) whose jaw greets our visitors, the Apus apus (European Swift) which spend the summer nesting in the tower, or the Raphus cucullatus (Dodo) on our Museum’s logo, all animals, plants, fungi and microbes, living and extinct, have scientific names – or at least once they have been properly described in a scientific paper they do. Usually found tucked away on specimen labels, scientific names carry much more significance than just a convenient means of reference.

The jaw of the Sperm Whale (Physeter macrocephalus)

The scientific name, also known as a binominal or Latin name, consists of two basic parts, and should be written in italics. The first part is the genus (the plural is genera), which refers to anything from one to thousands of kinds of creature that are more closely related to each other than anything else. Genera are always capitalised, such as Panthera (big cats).

The second part is the specific name, written in lower case. Together these define one species; for example a tiger is Panthera tigris. Sometimes, subspecies or varieties are written after the species name, such Panthera tigris tigris, which is the Bengal Tiger. They can also be abbreviated by replacing the genus with just an initial followed by a full stop, hence the ever-popular T. rex, or Tyrannosaurus rex.

T. rex in the Museum’s centre court

Some binomials are pretty easy to decipher: no prizes for working out Gorilla gorilla*. Others can seem pretty cryptic or even positively confusing – Puffinus puffinus anyone? Yep, that’s right, the Manx Shearwater**. Nevertheless, once translated they are often enlightening as to the appearance, distribution, behaviour, or history of the critter in question.

Here are a few examples. Ailuropoda melanoleuca, meaning ‘black and white cat-foot’, describes the appearance of the Giant Panda pretty well; Megaptera novaeangliae, or ‘giant-wing of New England’, alludes to both the anatomy and chequered history of the humpback whale; and while Pteropus vampyrus, or ‘wing-footed vampire’, is a bit of a misnomer for the flying fox, which is a large fruit-eating bat, it does reflects our changing understanding of the animal.

Gorilla gorilla, the Western Gorilla

Magpie (Pica pica)

Some names are elegantly concise: Pica pica, the magpie. Some are tongue-twisters: Phalacrocorax carbo, the Great Cormorant. And some, such as Synalpheus pinkfloydiare entertaining. But they are all more than just names; they are the most visible aspect of the science of taxonomy.

Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) first formalised the system we use today, which has allowed us to divide all the many species into not just genera, but a nested hierarchy of ever-more inclusive groups.

With this system we can not only be sure we are using a common language to precisely refer to the right species, but we can also then ask questions about how the staggering diversity of life that we see evolved. And from this we start to build ‘a tree of life’. But this will be the subject of a future article…

* Bonus points for knowing it’s the Western Gorilla, as opposed to Gorilla beringei, which is the Eastern Gorilla.

** Common Puffins, by the way, go by the delightful name Fratercula arctica, the ‘little friar of the north’.