Natural treasure: Gene hunting in the museum

poster%20SCW%20%282%29April 28th


Dried plants, rare animals, bones and fossils – the collections of museums of natural history and archaeology contain a wealth of objects from the natural world. Collected, often long ago, by scientists in the field hoping to understand nature and our evolutionary history. Today, new molecular techniques transform these dusty artefacts into genetic time machines. Modern scientists search in centuries-old herbaria for useful genes that have disappeared from crops, track the provenance of books by sequencing bookworms, and study past fisheries through dried fish. During this edition of the Science Café Wageningen, we discuss where these technological developments will take us.

Palaeontologist and former museum director Jelle Reumer has a clear understanding of the treasures that lie in collections and museums and which questions can be answered only by studying ancient bones and plants. Arjen Speksnijder is head of the laboratories of the Natural Biodiversity Center. He can explain what the technical challenges are of these materials, such as how ancient DNA breaks down and how objects can be contaminated by the touch of a human hand and modern bacteria.

Jelle de Gruyter will be the moderator of this session.

 Arjen Speksnijder is head of the laboratories at Naturalis Biodiversity Center. He studied (bio)chemistry in Leiden and subsequently received his PhD at the Radboud University. Since then he has worked as a scientist at, amongst others, the NIOO and the Natural History Museum in London. Speksnijder monitors our environment with modern analytical technology. For instance, discovering microbial communities in unexplored placed and measuring biodiversity through eDNA, genetic material shed by organisms into their environment.

 Jelle Reumer is a professor of vertebrate paleontology at Utrecht University. Between 1987 and 2005, he was director of the Natural History Museum in Rotterdam. He writes a weekly column for the Dutch national daily Trouw. Trained as a biologist, Reumer wrote a number of books on evolution and geology. To the general audience he is known as a playful storyteller with an ability to see wonder in everyday life.


Photos courtesy of Tim Hofmeester and Sven Menschel

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