A portrait of Darren in the Museum's Hintze Hall

Darren Chooneea is usually based in the Museum's molecular labs, but is working in Milton Keynes testing virus samples. Image: Qiagen PR.

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Museum molecular biologists volunteer in the fight against COVID-19

Scientists normally based in South Kensington have relocated to a testing centre in Milton Keynes, where they are helping to analyse coronavirus tests for the NHS.

Based at the UK Biocentre, the testing team receive swab samples from across the UK and check if COVID-19 is present in them.

When the NHS put out a call for volunteers with laboratory skills, Darren Chooneea answered.

Darren is a research assistant, normally based in the Molecular Biology Laboratories at the Museum. The labs provide a vital support for the rest of the Museum's scientific research.

Raju Misra, the head of the Molecular Biology Laboratories, explains, 'Our groups work on sequencing DNA across all organisms and groups. We extract DNA and process it, and we can do that for nearly any Museum specimen, including birds, mammals, insect samples and even environmental DNA from the air, water and soil.

'We are helping our colleagues to answer fundamental questions about life on Earth, work out how things have evolved over time, and how animals and plants have changed in response to human actions.

'We can also help with modelling and predicting future challenges, for example challenges around food security, disease or native species.'

In a normal week, Darren can work with a huge range of samples, from bird feathers to microbes.

Now he is putting in 12-hour shifts at the coronavirus lab alongside scientists and NHS workers from up and down the UK.

The molecular labs work with all areas of the museum, tesing samples from the collections and from research in the field. Image: Qiagen PR.


Darren says, 'I am working alongside a huge range of scientists, colleagues with backgrounds in various areas of science research work, others that are fresh out of PhDs, a few undergraduates - all sorts of people are filling the space.

'There is good camaraderie in the lab. It's important to have that on a 12-hour shift. We have no egos and you have to be happy to be told what to do.

'Not everyone realises we have these skills sets in the Museum, it's cutting edge stuff that we're doing. We've been involved in diagnostics stuff in the past with our disease work and a lot of these skills are translatable.'

When coronavirus tests come through the doors, Darren sets up the samples up to go to testing by extracting the viral RNA.

The lab can process more than 30,000 samples each night, with up to 60 people on a shift. Recently, the lab reached a milestone of processing and testing a million samples.

Darren says, 'The first night on the job was exhausting but now it's settled I do have a sense of achievement and knowledge that I'm doing something good. It does feel like you're part of a bigger movement.'

Andrew Baillie talks to visitors to the Museum about his scientific research


Andrew Baillie is the Museum's cetacean strandings officer, normally helping to track which whales and dolphins have stranded on the UK's coastline. He is also a virologist and uses his molecular lab skills to study developmental biology alongside his Museum colleagues. 

Now volunteering alongside Darren, he says, 'I am glad that I can use my lab skills to help out with the efforts to fight COVID-19.  I studied virology, so it's nice for me to be working on this now.

'It's also fascinating to see how a diagnostic lab at such a scale can be brought together so quickly, and it's great to get the opportunity to work with some automated equipment that I wouldn't normally use and to work with the variety of scientists that have been brought in to the lab.'