Natural history museum (NHM)

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Access is available to NHM's 70 million natural history specimens, including 800,000 type. The specimens are stored in secure storage units and well-organised in accordance with taxonomic groupings. This includes the Darwin Centre (Phase 1 & 2) a state-of-the-art facility housing 23 million zoological specimens in alcohol, plus all the majority of the entomological and botanical specimens. The Darwin centre has dedicated desk space for visiting researchers.

Collections & Expertise

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A summary of NHM collections is shown in below, specimens also include embryonic material used for the study of plant and animal development. NHM is a world leader in this field of research; frozen tissue and DNA collections. Researchers are permitted to use these collections inline with the NHM destructive sampling policy (please contact your proposed host for a copy). Such a diverse accumulation of specimens is unrivalled in Europe.

Department Collection highlights and staff expertise
Botany 117,250 primary types
Comprehensive, type-rich collections of lichens, bryophytes and algae, strong in Old World pteridophytes
European, Macaronesian, North African, Himalayan and Central American vascular plants
UK national collections and exceptionally rich in historical collections worldwide
Systematics of all cryptogamic plant groups except non-lichenised fungi.
Plant evolutionary and developmental studies
Conservation and biodiversity analytical methods
Nomenclature and typification
Tropical seedling biology Molecular systematics
Solanaceae systematics.
Entomology 279,225 primary types of nominal species.
Exceptionally strong for the British Isles, Europe, Commonwealth countries and the former British Empire
Named insect specimens of two-thirds of valid insect genera and over half of the valid described species in the world are represented
Systematics of insect disease vectors and insect pests of humans and domestic animals.
Forensic entomology
Mineralogy World-class mineral collection containing half the mineral species known in the world of which 10% are primary types
World-class collection of meteorites strong in Chondrites and non-Antarctic Martian meteorites
Comprehensive collection of ore suites from deposits no longer accessible. Unique collection of a wide variety of British and European building and decorative stones.
Environmental mineralogy, soil mineralogy and soils research and clay mineralogy.
Crystallography and Mineral structures
Palaeontology Over 106,600 type and figured specimens of which an estimated 51,500 are primary types.
Great geographical breadth that is in part linked to the UK’s colonial past.
Collections represent the full stratigraphic range – Pre-Cambrian to Recent.
Holdings of historical and monograph material are particularly strong.
Palaeobiogeography (Amphibia and Reptilia) andPalaeogeography
Phylogenetic analysis at high systematical level
Laser ablation
Digital imaging (including CT reconstruction)
Monte-Carlo Simulation
Biomineralisation
Zoology 375,000 primary types.
Zoological collections are exceptionally strong for Europe and areas formerly under British colonial administration
Systematics of Parasitic Worms (trematodes, helminths and schistosomes) in humans and domestic animals.
Systematics and evolution of Reptile, Amphibian and Fish groups
Systematics and biology (including phylogeny and ontology) of Crustacean groups
Bioinformatics- Molecular and cellular evolution of parasitic protists.
Deep sea biology of Nematodes
Evolutionary radiation of Molluscs.
Biogeography and Conservation through use of computer programmes (e.g. WORLDMAP) to develop methodologies for assessing biodiversity indicators
Recent climate change
Soil macrofauna diversity, the role of diversity in soil ecosystem processes; biodiversity assessment protocols.
Library The largest natural history reference collection in the world
Over one million volumes, with the oldest dating from 1469
25,000 periodical titles.

Analytical Facilities

All Users will have access to the basic equipment they require to complete their research, such as stereo microscopes. In addition, Users can apply to access state of the art technology to assist their research.

Molecular Biology Unit (MBU):comprising top-of-the-range facilities. This capacity makes possible research on genetic diversity in agricultural pests, human/animal disease causing organisms, endangered species and the study of developmental biology. A key component of the MBU is the Wolfson Wellcome-Funded Biomedical Laboratories which processes approximately 70,000 sequencing / fragment analysis samples per year. In total there are 8 dedicated technicians to help Users in all aspects of DNA sequencing and fragment analysis applications (SSCP, AFLP, VNTR, SNaPshot, Microsatellites analysis) and provide expert advice when troubleshooting any problem samples.

Analytical, Imaging and Structural Facility (AIF): encompasses state-of-the-art analytical, high-resolution, low-voltage and environmental scanning electron microscopes; electron probe microanalysis; laser ablation with ICPMS; cathodoluminescence; confocal microscopy; atomic absorption, inductively coupled plasma atomic emission, inductively coupled plasma mass spectroscopy and infra-red spectroscopy; X-ray diffraction facilities. This facility enables visitors to conduct research on a diverse range of research questions including: microtaxonomy; water quality; sewage treatment; soil contamination by radioisotopes and heavy metals; pollution, bioindicators; mineral chemistry and structure; ore and rock genesis; meteoritics. For a full list of the equipment that Users can apply to use click here.

The Palaeontology Conservation Unit, is one of the leading centres for museum conservation in the world, and is unique in Europe. It prepares, maintains and undertakes remedial treatment on all museum specimens and can offer training in best practise to Users. The Unit also conducts research into new methods of conservation.

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Information Technology and Access

The Museum has a site license for the alignment programmes 'Sequencher' and ‘Lasergene’ and access can be provided to the programme 'GeneMapper' which is used for fragment analysis. Computing resources include a 30-node Beowulf cluster and other Unix, PC, and Macintosh hardware, phylogenetic software, and a dedicated full-time Molecular Biology Computing Officer to support Users.

All Users will be able to bring personal laptops and connect these to the museums intranet (after a virus screening). Alternatively there are computers available for visitors to use.

Research supported by the infrastructure

NHM’s research is organised into ‘big questions’:

  1. What determines biological diversity in a changing world?
  2. How do large-scale physical and biological processes and their interactions influence the evolution of the Earth and other planets?
  3. The relationships between biodiversity and ecosystem functioning.
  4. How do interactions between hosts and their parasites impact on disease epidemiology and control?
  5. The diversity of phenotypes, genes and genomes and their relation to environment and evolution?
  6. Assembling the Tree of Life

Recent highlights

  • Report in Science on the initial research on the first samples returned from a comet, Comet Wild 2.
  • Entomologists using molecular data demonstrated the termites fall within one family within the cockroaches. It is rare that a well established taxonomic unit at order level is demolished in Nature.
  • In a new approach, the nanoengineering efficiency of living cells is harnessed, and diatoms and viruses, for example, can be used to synthesise nanostructures that may have commercial applications.
  • Methods using chironomid larvae have been used to reconstruct climate change over thousands of years with an accuracy of about 1°C. The results are useful in putting the magnitude modern climate change in context, providing a better understanding of climate dynamics and climate feedbacks, and also providing a means of verifying climate models.
  • A new method of description and classification for fossil hominids has been developed following the re-study of material from Tabun.
  • Order out of Chaos: Linnaean plant names and their types was published outlining the correct usage of scientific names, governed by nominated preserved specimens is crucial for stability in nomenclature and for clarity in a range of wider applications.