Digitization Project finds Anthrax samples in collections
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[April 01, 2016]
CHAMPAIGN - When anthrax became a household name in 2011,
even curators of some herbaria were unaware that samples of Bacillus
anthracis, the source of anthrax, had been housed in their
microfungal collections for over a hundred years. Recently, a
digitization project at the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS),
Prairie Research Institute (PRI) has unearthed the whereabouts of
historical samples, including one right here at the University of
Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
In mid-March, a historical specimen was found in an envelope
labeled Bacillus anthracis at the Chrysler Herbarium at Rutgers
University in New Jersey. The herbarium was closed for a day
while biohazard workers handled the sample.
According to a statement from Rutgers University, “The
121-year-old sample was determined to be incapable of being
aerosolized or otherwise exposed to humans. There was no risk to
students or employees at the building nor was there any
contamination at the facility.”
At the University of Illinois, only the label and envelope
remain, as the sample had been destroyed years ago, according to
Andrew Miller, lead principal investigator of a three-year, $2.8
million, National Science Foundation-sponsored microfungi
digitization project. Through this project, he determined that
six sets of these samples were originally distributed in the
late 1800s to various institutions across the U.S.
To date, all have been destroyed. Microscopic slides at the New
York Botanical Gardens and Harvard University were destroyed in
Miller’s project takes digital photos of the specimen labels and
then transcribes the details in a database called the MyCoPortal,
short for the Mycology Collections Portal. The goal is to
digitize 1.2 million species of microfungi, which include such
organisms as bread molds, rusts, and powdery mildew on plants.
Of particular interest may be the samples from the late 1800s
and early 1900s.
“Many curators didn’t realize what they had in their
collections,” Miller said. “Some herbarium cabinets may not have
been opened for many years. We’re unlocking a biodiversity
resource that is now accessible to anyone online.”
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In addition to the INHS, 37 other institutions are involved in the
Microfungi Collection Consortium. The project will allow researchers
to investigate questions such as how invasive pathogens have spread
across the U.S., and how human disturbances have affected the
distribution of fungi over time.
Little is known about the diversity, distribution, and ecology of
microfungi throughout the U.S. Many of the fungal specimens are
believed to have viable DNA that could be used to provide new clues
to the evolution of these organisms and how they have evolved over
the past 150 years.
The project website is located at
The database for the project is located at
The Prairie Research Institute at the
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign comprises the Illinois
Natural History Survey, Illinois State Archaeological Survey,
Illinois State Geological Survey, Illinois State Water Survey, and
Illinois Sustainable Technology Center. PRI provides objective
natural and cultural resource expertise, data, research, service,
and solutions for decision making, the stewardship of Illinois’
resources, and the public good.