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Tiny wildlife found living on London’s Natural History Museum

Scientists at the Natural History Museum look after vast collections inside the landmark building in South Kensington, but have just discovered a wealth of hidden wildlife living on the exterior; tiny micro-organisms.

The Microverse will for the first time explore the incredible diversity of the small living species that line buildings in our towns and cities yet go unnoticed. Scientists at the Museum will then use the latest DNA sequencing technologies to reveal their genetic code, uncovering the secret world of micro-organisms. 

The project is lead by Museum researcher Dr Anne Jungblut, who collected the first samples on the iconic Waterhouse building and modern glass-walled Darwin Centre of the Natural History Museum. Through cutting-edge DNA sequencing, scientists have revealed the incredible diversity of life on this building alone – more than 300 species of micro-organisms were collected including bacteria, algae, fungi and cyanobacteria.  

Dr Jungblut says; “Microscopic life fascinates me; it is everywhere, but it is so often overlooked when we think about wildlife and the natural environment. This research project, involving thousands of people across the UK, will allow us to uncover an invisible world and we may even discover species new to science.”

She continues: “We now want to extend this research to collect microbes from buildings across the UK, but can’t do it alone. It would take Museum scientists months of work and thousands of miles of travelling to collect enough samples, so we are inviting secondary schools, colleges and community groups to collaborate on this research project by collecting and sending in samples from their local area. By taking part, students will be contributing to the world-leading scientific research that takes place behind the scenes at the Museum every day.”

Microbes may be tiny, but they provide vital resources for our natural world. As well as removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and producing oxygen through photosynthesis, they break down harmful chemicals in our environment, such as oils and plastics and help with decomposition of leaves in our gardens and woodlands. 

The study of certain species of microscopic bacteria and fungi has also led to the discovery of new medicinal drugs and the development of industrial applications such as the enzymes in biological washing powders. 

The Microverse project is part of the Museum’s research into discovering and understanding the micro-organisms that can survive in extreme environments. Dr Jungblut has studied micro-organisms in Antarctica for several years, and now wants to turn her attention closer to home to understand the microscopic life surviving in the built environment. 

With more of us living in urban areas, our towns and cities are expanding, so it’s vital we get a better understanding of what this means for microscopic life and our impacts on global biodiversity.

Secondary schools, colleges and community groups across the UK can register to take part at www.nhm.ac.uk/microverse.

Notes for editors 

Relevant images for this release can be downloaded.

  • The Natural History Museum welcomes more than five million visitors a year and is also a world-leading science research centre. Through its unique collection and unrivalled expertise it is tackling the biggest challenges facing the world today. It helps enable food security, eradicate disease and manage resource scarcity. It is studying the diversity of life and the delicate balance of ecosystems to ensure the survival of our planet. For more information go to www.nhm.ac.uk
  • Citizen science is the involvement of volunteers in scientific research. The Natural History Museum has an active citizen science programme, where members of the public can make an important contribution to our science research in areas as diverse as microbiology, marine science, botany and ornithology.
  • The Microverse Project runs for the academic year 2014–15 and invites secondary schools, colleges and community groups across the UK to support the Museum’s research by collecting samples of micro-organisms from buildings and posting them to the Museum. It is aimed at GCSE and A Level students. Samples received will be sequenced using cutting-edge DNA technologies and will also be stored indefinitely in our Molecular Collections Facility for future research use. Participants will receive the data from their sample to analyse in the classroom, and the Museum will publish the research findings in academic and popular literature: www.nhm.ac.uk/microverse 

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