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This week Dr. Della Hopkins tells us about how the Decoding Nature project takes school students out on field trips and involves them in the Museum's science research.

 

In June, a group of ‘scientists in the making’ from Pimlico Academy joined up with a small band of research scientists from the Museum as part of a long running project called Decoding Nature. Decoding Nature is a Museum-run venture which delivers residential science courses to school children aged 8-18.

 

The courses take place at The Old Malthouse School near Wareham in Dorset, and combine learning with original, ongoing scientific research. Over the years the project has evolved and included a wide range of scientists with varied areas of expertise. Each course is different, ensuring that the children are taking part in cutting edge research that will be used for publication.

 

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Amazing lichen communities on Dorset trees - a winning photo from the photography competition. Image credit: Coco from Pimlico.

 

For this particular course our budding scientists from Pimlico Academy were set several tasks, to aid renowned Lichenologist Holger Thues with several important research questions. The week began with an introduction to lichens and a recap on classification and how to use keys, before launching into investigations into the species composition of spice lichens; bags of mixed lichen species sold as cooking ingredients in many Asian supermarkets.

 

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Recording the lichens on coastal trees. Image Credit: Annabel Crookshank, The Old Malthouse.

 

Next we took to the fields to carry out an air quality survey (designed by the OPAL project), using nine target lichen species growing on tree branches to give an indication of pollution levels. Three of these lichens are very sensitive to pollution, three are ‘intermediate’ and the final three are nitrogen-tolerant. The children’s findings were of great interest, showing that the presence of sheep dramatically altered the lichen community, with the nitrogen sensitive species nowhere to be found. Less than a mile away, by the coast, these species were flourishing.

 

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Comparing the lichen species on trees in grazed fields. Image credit: Annabel Crookshank, The Old Malthouse.

 

Once they had honed their lichen-identification skills we headed out to Dancing Ledge, a beautiful area on the coast where the cliffs meet the sea. The students carried out a series of transects to answer questions about the habitat preferences of the coastal lichens, such as whether the rocks were sea- or land-facing, vertical or horizontal, and how close to the sea they were. We made some surprising discoveries, and were able to make some collections to take back to the Natural History Museum.

 

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Making a (permitted!) lichen collection at Dancing Ledge.

 

Finally we used DNA barcoding techniques on a number of European and British samples of the lichen Verrucaria pachyderma. This involved working in the laboratory to extract DNA, and amplify it to a level which could be taken to the museum for the sequences to be read. This was very important work, and great care was needed with the samples. Everyone managed the task superbly, and we were successful in extracting the DNA.

 

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Ready and prepared for DNA extraction.

 

Once we left Dorset, and returned to the museum, the DNA samples were sequenced. Genetic analysis of the lichens collected from Europe show that the British collections may in fact represent an entirely separate species. The next step is to expand the collection range and analyse more genetic markers, but the results so far are already a big surprise and wonderfully exciting.

 

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Holger Thues explaining the different habitat preferences of the lichens. Image credit: Annabel Crookshank, The Old Malthouse.

 

The week was full of games to encourage learning, especially with the more tricky subjects such as DNA barcoding. The children entered each challenge with enthusiasm, whether they were in the lab extracting DNA, or buzzing around the field as worker bees collecting their sand pollen. We also found time to learn about other techniques used by scientists in botany (plants) and entomology (invertebrates).

 

To find out more, visit our Decoding Nature webpage.

You can also find out how to participate in OPAL surveys here.

 

Della Hopkins

 

Dr Della Hopkins has worked at the NHM for 6 years, and has managed the Decoding Nature project for the past 5. She previously worked on seed conservation with the Millennium Seed Bank at Kew. She studied Environmental Biology at Royal Holloway University of London, followed by an MSc in Ecology (Bangor) and her PhD from London investigated heathland conservation and restoration.

 

Della runs the Decoding Nature project with Dr Robert Dyer (molecular laboratory assistant).

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