The Natural History Museum London – Behind the Scenes 1

From mosquito DNA to Martian meteorites

The Natural History Museum (NHM) in London is not only a world-famous museum, but also a world leading research institution. It represents the culmination of almost 300 years of collecting, curation, research, exhibition, and publication from generations of collectors, curators, researchers, and archivists.

The NHM’s 80 million specimens span 4.5 billion years – from the formation of the solar system to the present day. The collections are predominantly natural objects and include samples from all fields of natural sciences research, but also the world’s largest natural history library and the largest collection of natural history art and illustration. Included amongst these collections are extensive notes, illustrations, archives, and related objects of scientific and historical interest.

The Natural History Museum is conveniently divided into four different colored zones, each of which focus on specific topics or subjects.

Science at NHM

More than 350 NHM scientists work in earth and life sciences, the core research labs and library and archives. As an acclaimed research institution, the NHM publishes over 700 scientific papers a year with international collaborators.

The museum is uniquely placed to prepare, digitize, analyze, and interpret natural history materials from mosquito DNA to Martian meteorites. The outstanding collections, broad expertise, and cutting-edge microscope instrumentation allow the scientists to carry out complex imaging and analyses of naturally occurring samples, and identify and interpret other materials such as metals, ceramics, and composites.

Many of the specimens are unique and have necessitated the development and application of non-destructive techniques, often in correlated combinations at a very wide variety of length-scales. As such, the NHM’s research laboratories offer a very flexible range of advanced imaging and analytical techniques with a very long history of applications to Natural Science samples.

On several floors, specialist staff prepare, analyze and interpret samples in state-of-the-art facilities.

Answering major scientific questions about our past and our future

Acting as an academic core facility for external researchers too, the NHM provides expert services and consultation. It acts as a support unit, to which individual scientists outsource technology‐demanding projects that require expertise beyond that of the research laboratories.

More than 350 researchers in the NHM are using the collection to investigate some of the biggest challenges facing our species, such as eliminating the parasitic diseases that condemn millions to poverty, finding new sources of minerals, and measuring the impact of climate change. Some of this work is in the spotlight in the Darwin Centre, the museum’s life sciences complex, which combines public galleries with state-of-the-art collection space and modern facilities for museum scientists. Technology is opening up new ways of seeing and unlocking the collection. The museum is working towards getting 25 percent of the 80 million specimens online, creating one of the world’s most important datasets about the planet accessible to the global science community.

The brain worm that turns ants into zombies

To give an example of one of these projects: For the first time, scientists have an image of what happens inside an ant’s brain when it is infected with a parasitic worm. NHM scientists have been studying how it interacts with one of its host’s brains. In an impressive image, they have captured the relationship in three dimensions for the first time. The results have been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

An artificially-colored image of an ant head with three parasites embedded inside it. Two are outside the brain and one (the orange one in the center) is inside the brain. This image was created using a ZEISS Versa 520 high-resolution micro-CT scanner in the Museum’s Imaging and Analysis Centre. Copyright NHM.

Well-equipped Imaging and Analysis Centre for sophisticated science projects

A portfolio of available imaging techniques supports the specialist team to prepare and analyze biological, geological and synthetic material. The range spans non-invasive and non-destructive techniques using X-rays to create 3D models of the internal and external features of specimens such as ZEISS Versa, several light microscopes such as ZEISS Axio Zoom.V16, ZEISS Axio Imager M2m, and ZEISS Axio Scan.Z1, but also electron microscopes such as ZEISS EVO and Ultra Plus to conduct qualitative and quantitative elemental analysis of samples.

More about ZEISS Axio Scan.Z1 for specimen digitization.

More about ZEISS Xradia Versa for internal and external visualization of 3D features.

The NHM has been a ZEISS labs@location Partner since August 2018. Museums in general are characterized by a variety of materials and applications. They are exciting for various customers. In addition, the NHM is centrally located and easily accessible for customers. Customers with specific enquiries are in safe hands there.

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