HOW TO SOLVE A BIOLOGICAL MYSTERY USING MUSEUM COLLECTIONS AND DNA TECHNOLOGY
By Rebecca Whitla, PhD student at Oxford Brookes University
The Black-veined white butterfly (Aporia crataegi) was a large, charismatic butterfly with distinctive black venation on its wings. Once commonly found in the UK, the species unfortunately went extinct here in around 1925, with the last British specimens collected from Herne Bay in Kent. It isn’t fully understood why the species disappeared from the UK, but climate change, predation, parasites, and disease have all been suggested to have caused its disappearance — perhaps with several of these factors contributing to its decline. Central to solving the mystery of the disappearance of the Black-veined white will be the collections of butterflies that are stored in museums like OUMNH.
Butterflies tend to be well-represented in museum collections, and the Black-veined white is no exception. While the species has now been extinct in the UK for around 100 years, Lepidoptera enthusiasts from previous centuries often captured wild Black-veined white specimens for their personal collections. The abundance of Black-veined white butterflies in museum collections, like the collections at OUMNH, serve as a valuable repository for scientific research — including my own!
Between June and December 2021, I undertook a research project using OUMNH’s Black-veined white butterflies. My task was to extract enough DNA from the butterflies to use for ‘whole genome sequencing’ — in other words, I was attempting to extract DNA from butterfly specimens to decode their complete DNA sequence. Getting DNA sequences from the historical specimens that are kept in Museums is no easy task, as DNA degrades over time. Nonetheless, animal specimens from natural history museums havesuccessfully been used for whole genome sequencing and genetic analysis in the past, including species as diverse as longhorn beetles and least Weasels.
In order to work out how to extract DNA from the specimens, I had to try a variety of methods. This included experimenting to find out whether butterfly legs or abdomen fragments yielded more DNA, and whether non-destructive methods of DNA extraction were as effective as destructive methods. An example of a non-destructive method of DNA extraction would be a process like soaking a sample overnight and using the leftover liquid for DNA extraction, whereas a destructive method might involve mashing a whole leg or abdomen segment to use as a DNA source.
Overall, I found that destructively sampling the legs of the butterflies gave the most reliable results, and also had the added benefit of not destroying the wings or abdomen of the specimens. Keeping the wings and abdomens of the butterflies intact will likely prove useful for conducting morphological studies in future.
Now that I have a reliable DNA extraction method, the next step in my research will be to analyse more Black-veined white specimens from a span of different time periods leading up to the species’ disappearance. I will then compare samples collected from each time period to calculate the genetic diversity of the species at each point in time, leading up to its disappearance. If I find a steady decline in the species’ genetic diversity over time, this may indicate a gradual extinction of the species. This is because we expect that, as numbers of a species decrease, inbreeding will become common, resulting in less diversity in the species’ DNA. However, if the populations of Black-veined white butterflies went extinct very suddenly, the decline in genetic diversity will probably be less pronounced. Learning more about the fate of the Black-veined White could not only help us unlock the historical mystery of the species’ decline in Britain, but will also help us understand more about the species’ decline in other parts of the world.
THE PIONEERING LEGACIES OF KATHLEEN LONSDALE AND DOROTHY CROWFOOT HODGKIN
By Leonie Biggenden, Volunteer
As Women’s History Month comes to a close, this blog post looks at two ‘sisters of science’, friends and contemporaries Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (1910 – 1994) and Kathleen Lonsdale (1903-1971), and considers some links between these remarkable women.
Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin is the only female bust in the Oxford Museum of Natural History and is the only British woman to have been awarded the Nobel Prize for science. When she was awarded the Prize in 1964 – for her ground-breaking discovery of the structures of vitamin B12 and penicillin – there was much scepticism about whether women belonged in the field of science. One newspaper commemorated her achievement with the headline “Nobel prize for a wife from Oxford”.
Hodgkin was assisted and supported in her endeavours by fellow scientist Kathleen Lonsdale, who worked in London while Hodgkin was based in Oxford. Both women were pioneers who advanced the x-ray crystallography technique, in which x-rays are fired at crystals of molecules to determine their chemical structure. Lonsdale applied the technique to diamonds, benzene, and later kidney stones. For her efforts, she had a type of diamond named after her: Lonsdaleite. It was not just any diamond, but one formed in meteorites, as a result of the heat and pressure of impact into the Earth’s atmosphere.
Both had similar difficulties as girls wanting to study science. Hodgkin was initially not allowed to take chemistry at her grammar school as it was considered a ‘boy’s subject’, but she thankfully managed to reverse the school’s decision, allowing her to pursue her scientific career. Lonsdale had to transfer to a boys’ school to be able to study maths and science, as these were subjects not offered at her girls’ school. She later described how her love of maths was inspired by learning to count at school using yellow balls.
Both women were supported by strong male advocates and mentors, such as the scientist William Bragg. Bragg first met Lonsdale when he was assigned as one of her examiners, and subsequently asked her to join his research school at University College London (UCL). Lonsdale would later follow Bragg when he moved his laboratory to the Royal Institution. Bragg was also responsible for inspiring Hodgkin’s interest in the properties of atoms, giving her a copy of ‘Concerning the Nature of Things’ when she was 15 years old.
Lonsdale and Hodgkin worked hard to show that science was a viable option for girls. Lonsdale’s essay, ‘Women in Science – why so few?’, argued that social expectations placed on women discouraged them from pursuing science . In fact, she was so determined to encourage girls’ interest in the subject that, while ill in hospital, she received special permission to be able to leave to award prizes for science at a local girls’ school. Hodgkin advocated for female scientists and directly mentored several who went on to become important crystallographers in their own right.
Both women eventually became professors, and Lonsdale was one of the first two women elected as Fellows of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1945. In 1947, Hodgkin was one of the youngest people to be elected FRS.
Both Hodgkin and Lonsdale were extremely concerned about the threat of nuclear war, and in 1976 Hodgkin became president of the Pugwash Conference which advocated for nuclear disarmament. Lonsdale was also involved with Pugwash and was president of the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom. A lifelong pacifist, she went to Holloway prison in London for a month for failing to register for war service and not paying her £2 fine. She became a dedicated advocate for prison reform after seeing the conditions of the women first-hand.
My favourite facts about both Lonsdale and Hodgkin are those that give us a glimpse of their ingenuity. Lonsdale made her own hat to meet the Queen and have her Damehood conferred upon her. It was constructed with lace, cardboard and 9d worth of ribbon. Similarly, when awarded her first honorary degree, Lonsdale pinned a strip of beautiful material inside her gown as a substitute for buying a whole new dress. Hodgkin was also very creative. As a child, she created her own personal laboratory in the attic and acquired acids from the local chemist to experiment with.
The two women held each other in great respect, as testified to by the fact that Hodgkin wrote a biographical memoir of Lonsdale. She said of her friend: “There is a sense in which she appeared to own the whole of crystallography in her time.” Let’s agree that both women can claim that crown. Looking back, we can remember these women for their remarkable stories, featuring precious gems, prisons, penicillin and peace. But, most importantly, we should remember Hodgkin and Lonsdale as pioneers who paved the way for future women scientists.
 Hodgkin D (1975) Kathleen Lonsdale 28 January–1 April 1971. Biogr Mems Fell R Soc 21:447–484
By Chloe Williams, History Finalist at Oxford University and Museum Volunteer
“The professor regrets to have to record the loss of the invaluable services of Miss Healey, who as a result of overwork has been recommended to rest for an indefinite period. This will prove a serious check to the rate of progress which has for some time been maintained in the work of rearrangement, and it is hoped that her retirement may be only temporary.” So ends the Oxford University Museum of Natural History’s 1906 Annual Report, marking the near-complete departure of Maud Healey from the archival record.
Despite how little of her history has been preserved, it is clear that Maud Healey made significant contributions to the field of geology. After studying Natural Sciences at Lady Margaret Hall in 1900, Healey worked at the Museum as an assistant to Professor William Sollas from 1902–1906. Here, she catalogued thousands of specimens and produced three publications. These publications were at the centre of debates about standardising the geological nomenclature, and turning geology into a practical academic discipline that could sustain links across continents. However, Healey was continually marginalized on the basis of her gender. Closing the Geological Society of London’s discussion of one of her papers, “Prof. Sollas remarked that he had listened with great pleasure to the complimentary remarks on the work of the Authoress, and regretted that she was not present to defend before the Society her own position in the disputed matter of nomenclature.” Predating the Society’s 1904 decision to admit women to meetings if introduced by fellows, Healey had been unable to attend the reading of her own paper.
Healey later worked with specimens collected by Henry Digges La Touche in colonial Burma (now Myanmar). While Healey worked with the identification of species, acknowledged by La Touche himself as ‘a more difficult lot to work at’ than similar specimens assigned to her male contemporaries, the physical collection and therefore its name and record is attributed to a male geologist.  She continued her work identifying La Touche’s collection of Burmese fossils after retiring from the Museum in 1906 and published a report about them in 1908. What happened to her afterwards is unclear. Tantalizing snippets like a 1910 marriage record might suggest that she turned to a life of domesticity, but whether Healey continued to engage with geology as a hobby remains uncertain.
It is almost unbelievable that a professional of Healey’s calibre could abandon the work in which she excelled. However, Healey lacked any familial connections to geology, and apparently did not marry into money, which would have made it difficult for her to retain access to organizations like the Geological Society of London. The diagnosis of ‘overwork’ mentioned in the Annual Report makes it possible that a medical professional could have discouraged her from engaging further in academia. Unfortunately, any diaries or letters which might have provided us with further clues were not deemed worthy of preservation.
Tracing Maud Healey’s history to 1910, it might seem as though we hit a depressing dead end. Healey is one of many nineteenth-century female geologists who participated in an international community in a range of roles including collecting, preserving samples, and actively producing knowledge. However, like many of her colleagues, her contributions are largely absent from the historical record. My research doesn’t aim to simply ‘rediscover’ these exemplary women after previously being ‘hidden’ from history, but instead considers how history itself is constructed from a material archive created along lines of gender and class. A subjectivity which surfaces only rarely in appended discussions to academic papers, and in spidery cursive on ancient fossils, Maud Healey ultimately suggests the need for women’s history to read archival silences as their own stories.
 Healey, M. ‘Notes on Upper Jurassic Ammonites, with Special Reference to Specimens in the University Museum, Oxford: No. I’, Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London 60, (1904), p.1-4.
 Burek, Cynthia V. “The first female Fellows and the status of women in the Geological Society of London.” Geological Society, London, Special Publications 317, no. 1 (2009): 373-407.
 La Touche, H.D. Letter to Anna La Touche, 1 August 1907. La Touche Collection. MSS.Eur.C.258/77. Asian and African Studies Archive, The British Library, London, UK.
Nature is wonderfully imperfect, and the data that we can gather from it is even further from perfection. Fossil localities, even those providing exceptionally well-preserved fossils, are inaccurate records of the past. Fossils can form from a variety of matter including organisms, their remains, or even traces of their activity. Yet not all of the material that can get fossilised at a particular site actually will. Among other factors, biases in the fossil record result from the nature of the materials responsible for fossilisation – usually sediments which are in the process of turning into rocks. In most cases, fossil localities offer us only a single ‘window of preservation’ – a skewed geological record of the ancient ecosystem that once existed there.
In 2012, a rich vertebrate bone bed was documented at the Ariño site in Teruel, Spain. Since then, researchers have unearthed more than 10,000 individual fossil bones, from which they have discovered new species of dinosaurs, crocodiles, and turtles. Plant fossils were also found, including pollen grains and amber, which is fossilised resin. Although amber was known to occur in this locality, this sort of material had remained unstudied… until recently.
Over the summer of 2019, I joined my colleagues to carry out amber excavations in the Ariño site – an open-pit coal mine that has an almost lunar appearance due to the dark carbonate-rich mudstone rocks and the total lack of vegetation. The scorching heat during a very hot summer was a bit maddening, but I did try to enjoy my yearly dose of sun before returning to the UK!
Resin pieces can be transported significant distances by runoff water before depositing on their final burial location, where they slowly transform into amber. However, we found amber pieces that had not moved from their original place of production. These large, round-shaped pieces preserved delicate surface patterns that would have been polished away even by the slightest transport. The resin that produced these amber pieces was formed by the roots of the resin-producing trees, and resembles sub-fossil resin my colleagues found in modern forests from New Zealand.
The small amber pieces from Ariño contain an unusual abundance of fossils. These pieces come from resin produced by the branches and trunk of the resin-producing trees. From the almost one kilogram of amber we excavated, we identified a total of 166 fossils. These include diverse insects such as lacewings, beetles, or wasps, and arachnids such as spiders and mites. Even a mammal hair strand was found!1
We now know that the Ariño site provides two complementary windows of preservation — a bone bed preserving a rich variety of vertebrate animals, and amber with abundant inclusions. Aside from Ariño, only three localities that preserve both dinosaur bone beds and fossiliferous amber have been reported in Western France, Western Canada, and North Central United States. However, in these cases, either the bone bed or the amber have offered a much more modest abundance and diversity of fossils. Some of the fossils from these localities also show signs of significant transport, which means that the organisms could have inhabited different, distant areas even though they fossilised together. This makes Ariño unique because it offers two valuable ‘windows of preservation’ from the same ecosystem.
Thanks to all this evidence and other data, we have been able to reconstruct an ancient terrestrial ecosystem – a 110-million-year-old coastal swamp – with unprecedented detail and accuracy.2 The inherent incompleteness of the fossil record will always remain a headache for palaeontologists… but localities like Ariño make the data that we can recover from the past a bit more complete.
1Álvarez-Parra, Sergio, Ricardo Pérez-de la Fuente, Enrique Peñalver, Eduardo Barrón, Luis Alcalá, Jordi Pérez-Cano, Carles Martín-Closas et al. “Dinosaur bonebed amber from an original swamp forest soil.” Elife 10 (2021): e72477.
2Álvarez-Parra, Sergio, Xavier Delclòs, Mónica M. Solórzano-Kraemer, Luis Alcalá, and Enrique Peñalver. “Cretaceous amniote integuments recorded through a taphonomic process unique to resins.” Scientific reports 10, no. 1 (2020): 1-12.
This week my colleagues and I announced the discovery of a new species of mammal from the time of dinosaurs. It is one of two rare skeletons we’re studying from the Isle of Skye in Scotland. These mouse-like animals lived in the Middle Jurassic (166 million years ago), and tell us about the evolution of mammals in the time of dinosaurs.
The two fossils belong to Borealestes serendipitous and Borealestes cuillinensis. B. serendipitous was the first Jurassic mammal ever found in Scotland, known originally from pieces of fossil jaw found on Skye in 1971. In our new paper, we describe the skull of a partial skeleton of this species, found in 1972 by the original discoverer of the site, Dr Michael Waldman and his colleague Prof Robert Savage. But this exceptional fossil lay unstudied for over 40 years. Only now is it giving up its secrets thanks to powerful synchrotron X-ray scans, which reveal the anatomy in incredible detail.
The other fossil skeleton was found in 2018 by my colleague Prof Richard Butler. After taking it back to the lab and CT-scanning it, we realised it was a new species. We named it Borealestes cuillinensis in honour of the Cuillin mountain range on Skye (Gaelic: An Cuiltheann), a stunningly jagged set of peaks that overlooks where the discovery was made.
Most ancient mammals are only known from a few teeth and jaws, so these skeletons are exceptionally rare. They are currently the most complete Jurassic mammals described from the UK.
The Middle Jurassic is an important time in animal evolution, because it marks an increase in the diversity of lots of different groups. Just afterwards, in the Late Jurassic, there are many new species of mammals, amphibians, small reptiles and dinosaurs, which flourish into the Cretaceous period. All of this diversity began in the Middle Jurassic, but fossils from that time are rare, making it difficult to unpick the causes of these changes. This means that any material from that time period is extremely important to our understanding of the course of evolution, and the drivers of animal diversity.
Our team have been carrying out fieldwork and research on Skye for the last decade. It includes researchers from National Museums Scotland and the universities of Oxford and Birmingham. We are working on many more exciting fossils from the island, so keep an eye out for the next discovery!
Read the paper ‘New species of mammaliaform and the cranium of Borealestes (Mammaliformes: Docodonta) from the Middle Jurassic of the British Isles’ published today in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.
Top image: Digital reconstruction of two Jurassic mammal skulls. (c) Matt Humpage
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.
In the summer of 2014 a strange building began to take shape just outside MoMA PS1, a contemporary art centre in New York City. It looked like someone had started building an igloo and then got carried away, so that the ice-white bricks rose into huge towers. It was a captivating sight, but the truly impressive thing about this building was not so much its looks but the fact that it had been grown.
The installation, called Hy-Fi, was designed and created by The Living, an architectural design studio in New York. Each of the 10,000 bricks had been made by packing agricultural waste and mycelium, the fungus that makes mushrooms, into a mould and letting them grow into a solid mass.
This mushroom monument gave architectural researcher Phil Ayres an idea. ‘It was impressive,’ said Ayres, who is based at the Centre for Information Technology and Architecture in Copenhagen, Denmark. But this project and others like it were using fungus as a component in buildings such as bricks without necessarily thinking about what new types of building we could make from fungi.
That’s why he and three colleagues have begun the FUNGAR project – to explore what kinds of new buildings we might construct out of mushrooms.
Mushrooms might sound like an outlandish building material. But there is certainly good reason to drastically rethink construction. Buildings and construction are responsible for 39% of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions – and a whopping 21% of those emissions come just from the making of steel and concrete. Construction also uses vast amounts of natural resources. Take sand, one of the principal ingredients in concrete. It takes a special sort, with just the right roughness, to make concrete. These days it is a lucrative commodity and controlled in some parts of the world by sand mafias and stolen by the boatload from islands.
Such troubles are set to worsen over the next decades as the world’s population grows faster and gets wealthier. We need a lot more homes and if you do the maths, the amount we need to build is staggering. ‘It’s like building a Manhattan every month for the next 40 years,’ said Ayres, borrowing a line from Bill Gates.
Can fungi really help? Absolutely, says mycologist Professor Han Wosten at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Fungi are not consumers of CO2 like plants are. They need to digest food and so produce carbon dioxide, like animals do. However, the organic waste streams (such as straw or other low value agricultural waste) that the fungi digest would be degraded to CO2 anyway, either by composting or burning. Plus, fungi bricks permanently fix some of that waste inside them and so act as a store of carbon. All this makes fungi buildings a climate win – and certainly miles better than using concrete, steel and bricks.
The FUNGAR project began in late 2019 and so far Prof. Wosten has been experimenting with how to make building materials. At Prof. Wosten’s lab in Utrecht, the team have been combining mycelium, the ‘roots’ of fungi, with agricultural waste such as straw. Then they allow the fungi to grow for about two weeks, until the fungus has colonised the straw. This binds the straw together, producing a white-ish foam-like material. Then they heat-treat it to kill the organism. They can also process it, for example by applying coatings or by squashing it. ‘If we press it we can get a material like hardboard,’ said Prof. Wosten. By varying the type of fungi and agricultural waste, the growth conditions and the post-processing, Prof. Wosten says they are getting all sorts of candidate building materials with different mechanical properties.
‘It’s very early days to start saying your house will be made entirely of fungus,’ said Ayres. But parts of it already can be. Mogu, a company based near Milan in Italy, already produces and sells sound-dampening velvet-textured wall tiles and floor tiles based on mycelium foam. The company’s chief technology officer Antoni Gandia is another FUNGAR project partner. He said that Mogu is also developing mycelium-based insulation material for buildings.
Ayres is hoping that the FUNGAR project will go way beyond just using fungi-based products as components in existing building designs. He wants to think about what entirely new kinds of building might be made from fungi. Foremost in his mind is building with living fungus.
‘It’s very early days to start saying your house will be made entirely of fungus.’
Phil Ayres, Centre for Information Technology and Architecture, Copenhagen, Denmark
There are two principal advantages to this. First, living fungus might behave as a self-healing material, simply re-growing if it becomes damaged. Second, mycelium networks are capable of information processing. Electrical signals run through them and change over time in a manner almost akin to a brain. ‘We’ve discovered that fungal materials respond to tactile stimulation and illumination by changing their patterns of electrical activity,’ said Prof. Andrew Adamatzky at the University of the West of England in Bristol, UK, who is coordinating the project with Ayres.
The idea is that perhaps the very structure of a mushroom building might sense and respond to its environment independently. It might for instance sense when CO2 levels from the mycelium are building up and open the windows to release the gas, according to Gandia.
Building with living mycelium will be a big challenge. This is because the longer it grows, the more of the substrate material – the straw, or whatever waste – it decomposes. Since the straw gives the materials their structural integrity, allowing the fungi to grow for too long isn’t desirable. There may be ways around this though. Depriving the fungi of water puts it into a dormant state: alive but not growing. And so one of Ayres’ ideas is to construct walls with two layers of dead fungus enclosing a layer of living fungus inside. This set up would shut out water from the inner layer, keeping the fungus there dormant.
One of the few other people who have explored working with fungi in construction is Jonathan Dessi Olive at Kansas State University in the US. He says that working with living mycelium is a very interesting new idea because it offers the possibility of the building being able to heal itself. But for him the real attraction of what he calls ‘myco-materials’ is that they ‘give us a way of reshaping how we think about the permanence of architecture.
‘What if some – not all – of our buildings were meant to only last a couple of years and could thereafter be recycled into shelter, food, or energy?’ he said.
The next major goal for the FUNGAR project is to build a small, freestanding building. They plan to pull that off within a year and then spend time monitoring it as it ages. It is crucial, says Ayres, to be able to monitor the living structure and see how it changes. It isn’t yet clear exactly what sorts of structures might end up being made from fungi, but they will probably start small. ‘I wouldn’t be crossing a bridge made of fungi, would you?’ joked Prof. Wosten.
You might be wondering what happened to Hy-Fi, that igloo-like structure in New York. The answer points to one of the most beautiful things about mycelium buildings. No wrecking ball or slow decay for them. It was taken down and composted.
The research in this article was funded by the EU. If you liked this article, please consider sharing it on social media.