Working at the Natural History Museum

During my MSc degree, I undertook a research project. After much deliberation, I decided to complete a project at the Natural History Museum in London. My research focussed on the diversity of life in the Antarctic. The temperatures in these regions regularly reach lower than -60oC. These extreme conditions mean that life is limited with the majority being microbial [1]. In the vast lakes of the Antarctic, mats of large microbial communities form due to the lack of herbivores and a complex food web. My project aimed to investigate how diverse are these communities and what factors influence the composition of the constituent members.

 

The first component of my project was conducted in the molecular laboratories at the Natural History Museum. I began by analysing samples collected from the depths (between 40 – 70m under the surface) of Lake Untersee in Antarctica and stored in a giant -80oC freezer to preserve them [2]. Over several weeks, I extracted DNA from these samples, readying them for downstream processes. To decipher the members of these microbial communities, the extracted DNA was sequenced and analysed. It was found that the communities were diverse and the majority of species present were cyanobacteria, a group of bacteria that obtain energy from photosynthesis.

 

This is of particular interest in Lake Untersee because recent evidence has found the presence of some of the world’s largest stromatolites, which are layered fossilised sedimentary structures formed from the biological activities of ancient cyanobacteria. Dating of these forms has indicated that they are likely to have been created by some of the world’s first organisms. Understanding the composition of modern day microbial communities may have implications for deciphering how these ancient structures were formed; for example, life as the first photosynthesizing organisms. These formations have also been put forward as a candidate for studying life on Mars as outer space evidence has suggested that the fossils of the red planet are similar to Antarctic stromatolites.

Working at the NHM

Again, as with working at Kew Gardens, being able to explore the museum daily was a real treat. This opportunity allowed me to visit exhibits and curations that I would not necessarily have seen otherwise including pigeons collected by Charles Darwin, an emperor penguin egg collected by Scott of the Antarctic and of course the infamous Sensational Butterflies [3].

 

I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the Natural History Museum, developing as a scientist, learning valuable techniques and gaining a deeper understanding of the research community. If there are any keen taxonomists, biologists or science communicators out there, I would definitely recommend working with the Natural History Museum. Also if you want to learn more about the ‘behind the scenes’ of the NHM, I would like to mention Richard Fortey’s book [3]. A final advocation for the NHM is the treasures room situated just behind the statue of Charles Darwin in the Hintze Hall.

If you want to learn more: 

  1. Laybourn-Parry, J. & Pearce, D, A. 2007. The biodiversity and ecology of Antarctic lakes: models for evolution. Proceedings of Royal Society B, 362, 2273–2289.
  2. Andersen, D., et al. 2011. Discovery of large conical stromatolites in Lake Untersee, Antarctica. Geobiology.
  3. Fortey, D. 2009. Dry Store Room No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum. Vintage Books.
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