Digitization Project Finds Anthrax in Collections

Release Date: 
Friday, April 8, 2016



Champaign, Ill.  When anthrax became a household name in 2011, even curators of some herbaria were unaware that samples of Bacillus anthracis, the source of anthrax, had been housed in their microfungal collections for over a hundred years. Recently, a digitization project at the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS), Prairie Research Institute (PRI) has unearthed the whereabouts of historical samples, including one right here at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

In mid-March, an historical specimen was found in an envelope labeled Bacillus anthracis at the Chrysler Herbarium at Rutgers University in New Jersey.  The herbarium was closed for a day while biohazard workers handled the sample.

According to a statement from Rutgers University, “The 121-year-old sample was determined to be incapable of being aerosolized or otherwise exposed to humans.  There was no risk to students or employees at the building nor was there any contamination at the facility.”

At the University of Illinois, only the label and envelope remain, as the sample had been destroyed years ago, according to Andrew Miller, lead principal investigator of a three-year, $2.8 million, National Science Foundation-sponsored microfungi digitization project. Through this project, he determined that six sets of these samples were originally distributed in the late 1800s to various institutions across the U.S. 

To date, all have been destroyed. Microscopic slides at the New York Botanical Gardens and Harvard University were destroyed in 2011.

Miller’s project takes digital photos of the specimen labels, and then transcribes the details in a database called the MyCoPortal, short for the Mycology Collections Portal. The goal is to digitize 1.2 million species of microfungi, which include such organisms as bread molds, rusts, and powdery mildew on plants. Of particular interest may be the samples from the late 1800s and early 1900s.

“Many curators didn’t realize what they had in their collections,” Miller said.  “Some herbarium cabinets may not have been opened for many years.  We’re unlocking a biodiversity resource that is now accessible to anyone online.”

In addition to the INHS, 37 other institutions are involved in the Microfungi Collection Consortium.  The project will allow researchers to investigate questions such as how invasive pathogens have spread across the U.S., and how human disturbances have affected the distribution of fungi over time.

Little is known about the diversity, distribution, and ecology of microfungi throughout the U.S. Many of the fungal specimens are believed to have viable DNA that could be used to provide new clues to the evolution of these organism and how they have evolved over the past 150 years.

The project website is located at http://www.microfungi.org.

The database for the project is located at http://www.mycoportal.org.