DNA + Fossils = The Big Data of Life
We have an archive of antique and, in fact, fossil DNA in museums that compliments the DNA and the genomics that we acquire from living humans and living animals.
Kirk Johnson is the Sant Director of the National Museum of Natural History. He oversees more than 460 employees, an annual federal budget of $68 million (museum’s federal budget in FY 2012) and a collection of more than 126 million specimens and artifacts—the largest collection at the Smithsonian. The Museum of Natural History hosts an average of 7 million visitors a year, and its scientists publish about 500 scientific research contributions a year.
As a vice president of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, Johnson was part of a team that led the museum and managed its $40 million annual budget. The museum, which receives 1.4 million visitors per year and has a staff of 400, launched a $170 million capital campaign in 2005.
As chief curator at the Denver museum, Johnson oversaw a 70-person research and collections division that included curators, archivists, conservators and technicians and managed its $3.5 million annual budget. He was responsible for the museum’s 24 collections, and he led the completion of the museum’s first comprehensive long-term collections and research plan. He served as a curator of paleontology since joining the museum in 1991.
Johnson is the author of numerous scientific papers, and he has edited seven scientific volumes. He has written nine books, including his most recent, Digging Snowmastodon: Discovering an Ice Age World in the Colorado Rockies, which was published by the museum and the People’s Press in 2012.
What’s incredible about genomics is its ability to get a lot of data really fast in a way that can be analyzed in very useful ways.
So when you think about a museum – that is where our culture stores and preserves all the samples of all the rest of the types of life on the planet. We have over a 126 million objects in our museum in Washington DC. Most of those are biological objects. They’re skins of extinct animals, they’re pressed samples of plants, they’re beetles on pins. And every one of those samples contains antique DNA.
It’s DNA that’s still in the skin. We can scrape the hide of an extinct marsupial carnivore from Tasmania and achieve part of that animal's genome. We’ll actually be able to understand what composed the genome of extinct animals or animals that were sampled a hundred years ago before certain kinds of environmental variables were in play.
So we actually have an archive of antique and, in fact, fossil DNA in museums that compliments the DNA and the genomics that we acquire from living humans and living animals.
In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.
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