Darwin Tree of Life team

People in a field with trees behind them

Researchers in Ainsdale, image by Lyndall Pereira da Conceicoa

The Darwin of Life (DToL) team

Ian Barnes, Principal Investigator

I am the Researcher Leader for Ancient DNA, and the Head of the Division of Vertebrates and Anthropology in the Earth Sciences Department. I mainly work on projects that involve recovering DNA from different parts of the museum collection, from ancient humans to 20th century insects.

I am also the Principal Investigator for the Museum’s part of DToL, which means I make sure all of the science runs smoothly, and that we keep in touch with the other project partners. I am interested in getting genomes from many different species, but particularly the mammals, where we already have specimens stretching back over thousands of years.

Gavin Broad, Co-Investigator, Principal Curator in Charge of Insects

I lead on the Natural History Museum’s sampling programme, representing the museum on the DToL Samples Working Group, as well as chairing the Terrestrial Arthropods Working Group. Part of my role is to ensure we have the right people and processes in place at the Museum to make this project a success.

My research interests lie in the taxonomy and evolution of parasitoid wasps, so I’m particularly keen to see genomes from wasps which have co-opted viruses which help them overcome host immune defences. And genomes from any of the species I’ve described from the UK would be rather neat!

Matt Clark, Collaborating Researcher and Senior Responsible Owner

I am a Researcher Leader in Algae, Fungi and Plants division in the Life Science Department. I have over 25 years of genomics experience at the Museum. I mostly work on genomics of plants and pathogens, typically with an element of technical development in either the molecular biology or bioinformatics.

As the senior responsible owner for the Natural History Museum’s DToL project, I work with the DToL team and others to ensure that the project meets its objectives, delivers the projected outcomes and realises the benefits. I’m particularly interested in agriculturally relevant genomes, and how we can use Museum's collections to add knowledge to the biology of species with new high-quality DToL genomes. 

Jonathan Gabriel, Project Coordinator

I’m responsible for the financial and project management of the DToL project as well as overall operational coordination. This involves liaising with the DToL team and Sanger on budgetary and operational matters and ensuring that everything is in place for the project team to successfully deliver.

I also chair the fortnightly Museum DToL meeting, which brings together the whole team to discuss how the project is progressing. I have a background in molecular biology and it is amazing to see these techniques being used for such a worthwhile and necessary biodiversity project. The project will provide a huge amount of genome data which will support UK biodiversity research going forward and I’m really proud that I’m a part of it!

Ben Price, Collaborating Researcher

I'm the Senior Curator in Charge of small orders, which is a diverse group of insect orders and non-insect hexapods. My research focus includes the taxonomy of freshwater invertebrates, exploring their role as bioindicators of water quality and accelerating their identification and water quality monitoring through DNA-based methods.

In the DToL project, I help lead on the sampling of freshwater invertebrates, working with the Museum team and our network of external partners to ensure specimens are available for sequencing. I'm particularly interested in using the genomes of freshwater invertebrates to explore freshwater biodiversity through environmental DNA - the trace fragments of DNA that all organisms leave behind.

Lauren Hughes, Collaborating Researcher

My research focus is on amphipod Crustacea taxonomy having published new distributions and revisions of over 400 species, including more than 130 new species from both marine and terrestrial environments. For DToL I am particularly interested in UK invasive marine amphipods, North Atlantic Oedicerotidae and historic caprellid nomenclature in relation to the Museum's collection. My publications use taxonomy as a platform to understand broader concepts in systematics, biogeography and natural history studies.

As the Principal Curator in Charge for non-insect invertebrates collection my role includes supporting collection acquisition for DToL voucher specimens in conjunction with the technician, research assistant and curation team.

Raju Misra, Collaborating Researcher

I am the head of the Molecular Division, managing molecular scientists, operation leads and bioinformaticians. It is a varied role, covering research and development, business development, service management and day to day operations. Within my R&D role, I mainly work on applied research and development, covering genomics, proteomics, and bioinformatics, across all species and specimen types. 

I am the barcoding lead for DToL, where the Natural History Museum is the primary centre for barcoding most of the taxa, from which we look to whole genome sequence a species. I am particularly interested in applying genomic methods to solve biological or environmental problems, for example, in field tools to capture the biodiversity within an ecosystem or trying to get the genome from a historic specimen.

Jacqueline Mackenzie-Dodds, Collections Manager, Molecular and Frozen Tissues

I manage the Molecular Collections facility (MCf) at the Museum, developing and curating the 2M biodiversity sample repository, making biodiversity genetic resources accessible to the wider scientific community.

I have over 30 years of experience in and laboratory management and molecular biology research from both industry and academia with research at the Museum including a wide variety of projects in non-human species in taxonomy and evolution.

From 2008, I have focussed on molecular collections management and biobanking, aligning and collaborating in initiatives in the EU and US including ESBB, ISBER, GGBN, SYNTHESYS, Frozen Ark and more recently CryoArks and DToL projects.

DToL specimens and samples for all taxa are stored in MCf freezers and liquid nitrogen tanks, sorted, formatted (2D barcoded) and accessioned into the Museum's molecular reference collections by the DToL Sample Curator, Heather Allen.

Inez Januszczak, Sampling Coordinator

It's my responsibility to coordinate and manage sample collection and track the progress of each specimen as it goes from field or external donation, through to processing in the Museum's laboratories and then final shipment to the Sanger Institute to begin whole genome sequencing.

I work closely with everyone on the DToL team (within the Museum and with external partners) to ensure we are targeting the right species, maintaining a good taxonomic breath of samples and collecting the highest quality specimens.

I have a background in animal pathology, wildlife epidemiology and have worked with scientific institutions in England and Spain. I am particularly interested in native species conservation. This project plays a crucial role in mapping their genetic variability, sometimes for the very first time.

Laura Sivess, Research Assistant (Invertebrates)

I have a varied and hands-on role in the DToL project. Often in the field, I collect, preserve and prepare specimens for DNA barcoding and whole genome sequencing. Ensuring the cold chain is maintained from field to lab is critical, this means using liquid nitrogen (-196°C) and dry ice (-78.5°C) to maintain the incredibly cold temperatures needed to preserve DNA.

I am particularly interested in the development and optimisation of natural history collections. Building a novel collection representing UK flora and fauna through dry, spirit, molecular and digital formats, while ensuring accessibility, is a unique and exciting project to contribute to!

Olga Sivell, Research Assistant (Invertebrates)

I am a Research Assistant on the Darwin Tree of Life project, working on terrestrial and freshwater invertebrates. I specialise in British blow flies (Calliphoridae, Polleniidae, Rhiniidae), but I am also interested in many other groups, particularly in carrion breeding arthropods and spiders.

The most exciting part of my job is engaging with the experts and collectors and drawing from their knowledge of all the small and fascinating creatures. I focus on the rare and endangered species, preserving them in hope that their sequenced genomes will help develop methods that bring them back from the verge of extinction.

Chris Fletcher, Research Assistant (Marine Invertebrates)

I am a research assistant for the DToL project with a specialism in marine invertebrates. I previously spent 8 years collecting, preserving and identifying marine invertebrates and fish for UK consultancies, gaining in-depth and broad knowledge of the identification of most groups of marine macrofauna from the British Isles.

As well as helping with collecting specimens, BioBlitz events, curation and day to day sampling of DNA from species, I am looking forward to encountering many more marine species I have not seen before, developing skills in advanced imagery work, learning about phylogenetics and getting stuck into some research!

Heather Allen, Molecular Data Manager and Molecular Sample Curator

It is my responsibility to construct the data pipeline for the project. Broadly speaking, this consists of creating a method of initially capturing information in field to accompany any samples collected, feeding this into our collections management system (as well as various other data repositories), and enabling people to access meaningful data sets.

I am also the Molecular Sample Curator for the project, so it is also my job to make sure all DToL specimens are correctly stored within the freezers and liquid nitrogen tanks in the Molecular Collections facility at the Museum. I must also ensure that the locations of all samples are accurately documented as tracking is vital.

Darren Chooneea, Senior Research Assistant

My main role is to develop and optimise methods for DNA barcoding on various sequencing platforms. Some of the major challenges include how efficiently break open and extract DNA from the samples and sequence the vast array of organisms that we will encounter during this project.

I have been involved in numerous projects working on the weird and wonderful sample types such as human poo, FFPE seal lung samples, various tissues, hair, blood and pus from various animals and sequencing air samples. I really enjoy method development and pushing the limits of technology.

Clementine Geeves, Molecular Laboratory Assistant

I am one of the research assistants on the DToL project helping to DNA barcode sequence all the specimens that the DToL team have collected. I have three years of high-throughput library preparation experience from working at the Oxford Genomics Centre and hope to use my knowledge and expertise to help increase the throughput for this project.

Due to the enormous number of species and not one set of primers working across all of them my role includes a lot of troubleshooting as well as optimisations to bring the processing time and costs down. I look forward to learning about all the weird and wonderful things that live in the UK!

Silvia Salatino, Computational Biologist, Molecular Biology Laboratories

My primary research focus is on the design, implementation and maintenance of standard and bespoke bioinformatic pipelines for the analysis of a wide variety of genomic data, from short- (Illumina) and long-read sequencing technologies (Nanopore, PacBio). Before joining the Museum, I earned a PhD in Bioinformatics in Switzerland and spent five years working at the Wellcome Centre for Human Genetics in Oxford.

As part of the DToL project, I am in charge of the data analysis for all DNA barcoding samples, from low-throughput Sanger data to high-throughput circular consensus sequences. By comparing a short DNA sequence (also called “barcode”) from a given organism with a large reference library of similar sequences previously assigned to known taxa, I can uniquely identify that organism’s taxonomy and, in some cases, even discover a new species. 

Piotr Cuber, Research Assistant

My role focuses on the further development and optimization of DNA barcoding protocols, as well as troubleshooting problematic samples from extraction to final preparation for Sanger sequencing. My expertise is not limited to molecular biology; I have a wide raging experience working with a variety of invertebrate fauna, as my original educational background (BSc and MSc) had a strong biodiversity, zoology, and taxonomy focus, which I have found to be very useful when working in a project like DToL.

After graduating with a PhD in Biomedical Sciences, I continued working with different invertebrates as a Research Associate at the University of Gdansk, then as a Research Scientist at the Pirbright Institute where I focused on mosquito gene drive systems.

Dominic Phillips, Invertebrate Research assistant

As an Invertebrate Research assistant on the DToL project, I spend a lot of my time looking at insects and other invertebrates (marine and terrestrial). This includes collecting specimens in the field and assisting in their identification, preservation and preparation for DNA barcoding and whole genome sequencing.

I am interested in discovering more about the wealth of life on our doorstep and how we can help to preserve it for future generations. Research wise, I am fascinated by how population genetics change over time and how they are impacted by environmental changes. I will subsequently be starting the second year of my PhD in tropical montane Lepidoptera, and I am looking forward to investigating how different species are impacted by gradients of land-use change, as well as exploring the wide biodiversity Peninsular Malaysia has to offer!

There are many aspects of working at DToL that are incredibly exciting, such as sharing our work with the wider public, engaging with curators in the museum and of course having the opportunity to explore the large variety of invertebrates which have been collected so far!