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A Diverse Collection

The Natural History Museum in Washington, DC, is chipping away at its goal to collect and store five million bits of tissue in what will be the world's largest museum-based biorepository, Joseph Stromberg writes in the latest issue of Smithsonian magazine. The collection effort is part of a multi-institution movement called the Global Genome Initiative to amass and genomically analyze samples representing the Earth's biodiversity.

An exhibition opening this June at the museum, "Genome: Unlocking Life's Code," is presenting the project and its potential to the public, Stromberg writes. Currently, the museum has amassed 200,000 samples in 20 gleaming, supercooled steel drums, but the goal is to collect a total of five million samples from animals, plants, fungi, protists, and bacteria.

The specimens — unlike the plethora of other taxidermied, pickled, and mummified biological bits and pieces in the museum's collection — are slated for initial DNA barcoding to confirm their species, and then for eventual genome sequencing.

According to Stromberg, the barcoding portion of the project has already yielded surprising results. For instance, 25 new fish species were found in a tenth of a square mile area off of Curaçao.

Beyond a basic catalog of life and an understanding of the physiology and evolutionary history of the Earth's multitudes, the project may also someday function as a seed bank, Stromberg writes, either preserving a genetic record of animals and plants or potentially even providing the building blocks to restore extinct species in some futuristic Jurassic Park scenario.