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Manhattan Model Organism Project

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In a small, newly refurbished laboratory in the bowels of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, six shining new stainless steel drums the size of beer-brewing vats sit ready for loading. The cryogenic tanks will eventually contain a repository of nonhuman genomes — one of the biggest frozen tissue collections in the world.

The museum’s bank will likely not outsize those at the American Type Culture Collection and the Centers for Disease Control. But what will set this liquid-nitrogenized collection apart will be a stock of living communities of organisms, such as a bacterial ecosystem retrieved from a pond in Illinois. That sample and some 30,000 others are now being prepared for storage in tubes arranged inside the vats in three-dimensional grids tracked in a database linked to GenBank.

The museum expects the collection, which is being funded with a grant from NASA’s astrobiology program, to have fulfilled its one-million-sample capacity within 10 years. Rob DeSalle, codirector of AMNH’s molecular laboratories, says, “People are beating down our door to put things in there.”

DeSalle notes that the bank, which is expected to begin accepting deposits and making loans to researchers by the end of this month, will serve the private as well as the public sector — a first for the nonprofit institute.

That’s not to say the museum is ignoring its mandate to educate the public about scientific breakthroughs: “The Genomic Revolution,” which is being touted as “the most comprehensive genomics exhibit ever,” will be unveiled at AMNH on May 26.

— Adrienne Burke

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