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US scientists guarding precious living collections during Covid lockdown

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A magnified coronavirus germ is displayed on a desktop computer monitor during coronavirus patient sample detection tests in the virology research labs (Representational Image) | Photographer: Geert Vanden Wijngaert | Bloomberg
A magnified coronavirus germ is displayed on a desktop computer monitor during coronavirus patient sample detection tests in the virology research labs (Representational Image) | Photographer: Geert Vanden Wijngaert | Bloomberg


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During World War II, a devoted group of botanists guarded the world’s oldest collection of plants over the 28-month-long siege of Leningrad. Nearly a dozen of them starved to death, valuing the survival of the collection over their temptation to eat seeds.

These scientists at the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry in what is today St. Petersburg, Russia displayed extraordinary dedication to ensure an invaluable biological collection had a future, even when they did not.

This tragic story resonates with many scientists today who have dedicated careers to cataloging and preserving Earth’s biological diversity. Many are risking their personal health during the coronavirus pandemic to ensure the survival of awe-inspiring assemblages of algae, arthropods, bacteria, fungi, mammals, plants, viruses and fishes.

Staying on top of these collections is time-consuming during the best of times, and this task becomes even more complex in the age of social distancing. Yet hundreds of scientists across the United States are doing just that, maintaining everything from crickets, to tissue cultures, mice, powdery mildews, nematodes, psyllids, zebrafish and even rust fungi.

Worth the risk

Like a beloved backyard garden, these collections must be constantly nurtured. They need to be ready to accommodate new specimens but also relinquish those that are no longer viable. Such collections have taken lifetimes to build, as specimens are painstakingly acquired and undergo observation, purification and scrutiny of genetics and measurable traits.

Seed vaults, like the St. Petersburg plant collection, safely store bygone seeds with unique traits that can be plucked from dormancy and bred with modern varieties to improve them. Within other collections, similar secrets await discovery with potential insights into human disease, microbiology and food biosecurity. As modern science techniques like genome sequencing continue to advance, researchers will certainly learn more from these living collections and further increase their value to humanity.Scientists like us collect what we do partly because these organisms inspire our research and capture our imaginations. But just as importantly, these collections are significant to society and its advancement.

Living collections are typically housed within academic or government labs but are generally accessible to the broader scientific community. Funding for maintenance often comes from the public, with many collections relying on the U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health for support.

The hidden costs of living collections are often shouldered by collections managers and staff. No one sees the days or even months curators and technical workers spend cultivating a single unique organism or colony, the holidays spent setting up cages, the weekends changing food, providing water, and, yes, picking up waste.

It takes a lot of labor and technical skill to keep collections alive and solvent.


Also read: Why there is a big debate over accuracy and results of Covid anti-body tests


Our own living collections

During a global pandemic, this unassuming work becomes even more difficult. Many scientists have been left scrambling to justify the importance of their collections to their administrations in order to gain laboratory access during social distancing restrictions. We know this because we’re spending our time maintaining living collections of our own here at West Virginia University.

To maintain our collection of more than 900 individual strains, these fungi must be individually partnered with their plant hosts. Then the plants must be maintained in greenhouses for several months each year. With 250 to 300 isolates cultured every three months and watered daily, this is a serious time commitment. We also need to support commercial sales, which are part of the collection, problematic cultures that need special attention, and research projects that require additional space, labor and maintenance.We maintain INVAM, the world’s largest collection of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi. These are fungi that have formed an intimate beneficial partnership with plant roots – so intimate that they can be cultured only on a living plant.

Despite the many challenges, it is worth this effort because our collection provides scientists with an unparalleled resource to ask questions about how these close partnerships evolve and how they can be leveraged to grow healthier food and fitter crops now and under our changing environment now and in the near future.

These finicky insects are constantly in search of blood and require feeding multiple times a week, no matter what is happening in the world. Like people, individual tsetse flies have a low number of offspring. This means it’s important to keep tsetse fly numbers high in colonies to promote genetic diversity.Elsewhere on campus, the Rio lab maintains one of only two tsetse fly colonies in the United States. These bloodthirsty flies transmit parasites that cause some of the most devastating neglected diseases. These colonies are critical to advancing scientists’ understanding of fly biology and parasite interactions and for devising novel pest control strategies.

Keeping collections alive during a pandemic

To keep collections going while observing social distancing rules, scientists seem to have taken two approaches: Put collections into “hibernation” or bring them home.

For regulatory and logistical reasons, we could not bring our collections home, so we’ve carefully planned the minimum required maintenance to limit personnel required and the number of visits to the university. Our goal is simply to usher as many fungal strains or flies through this human public health crisis as possible without conducting experiments or growing our collections.

To accomplish this, we’ve had to justify our status as essential employees to our university. We go in wearing masks and scrupulously disinfect shared surfaces. We not only coordinate with other essential personnel to ensure that we’re on campus at different times, but use different routes through the building. We do this to protect our communities, while also protecting scientific resources that have consumed considerable time and effort to amass.

The other option is to bring collections home. This works for organisms that take up little space and can leave the confines of a laboratory, unlike permit-regulated tsetse flies, and can handle the conditions of our households.

This short-term solution allows more effective social distancing but presents new logistical challenges. Imagine sharing your home with a few hundred social spiders, 400 overwintering Boisduval’s butterflies or even 1,500 widow spiders.

Though their scientist caretakers are well suited to deal with the challenges of rearing these organisms at home, they’re still faced with difficult questions. Where do you store them? How will you secure enough food to weather this ambiguous period of self-isolation? How do you keep your cats or kids out of incubators full of flour beetles?

The imposition of bringing a colony of insects home or jumping through risky hoops to visit collections living in the lab is well worth it for scientists like us. The effort necessary during this pandemic to literally keep science alive is justified by the value these collections provide to researchers and society.The Conversation

Matt Kasson, Assistant Professor of Plant Pathology and Mycology, West Virginia University; Brian Lovett, Postdoctoral Researcher in Mycology, West Virginia University, and Rita Rio, Professor of Biology, West Virginia University

This article is republished from The Conversation.


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Andhra doctor, suspended for alleging PPE shortage, now beaten by cops for ‘creating nuisance’

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doctor with a stethoscope
A doctor with a stethoscope (Representative image) | Pixabay


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Bengaluru: A doctor with a government hospital in Andhra Pradesh, who was suspended for questioning the shortage of PPE kits, was admitted to a mental health facility Sunday, a day after he was allegedly manhandled by the police and arrested for creating nuisance in Visakhapatnam.

Dr Sudhakar Rao, a government civil surgeon, was beaten, his hands tied behind his back and dragged by police officers Sunday. During the incident, Sudhakar allegedly verbally abused the Jagan Mohan Reddy government in an inebriated state. Videos of the incident have since been widely shared online.

“The police control room received a call about a person creating nuisance on Beach Road Hospital in Visakhapatnam. The Fourth Town police was rushed there and found that the person was the suspended doctor, Sudhakar.

“When the police tried to control him, he snatched the mobile phone of an officer and threw it away. He is suffering from mental disorder and he was drunk. He was sent for a medical examination,” Vishakapatnam Police Commissioner R.K. Meena told the media Sunday.

Sudhakar was admitted to a mental hospital Sunday after doctors at the King George Hospital in Vishakapatnam said he suffered from anxiety.

“Since the doctor is in anxiety and talking irrelevant things, I have referred him to a mental care hospital in Visakhapatnam,” said Dr Radha Rani, medical superintendent, King George Hospital.

A statement released by the hospital said: “Dr Sudhakar was brought to the KGH casualty ward at 6.30 pm. From the smell, it was found that he was in a drunk condition. Under the influence of alcohol, he did not cooperate with anybody there and kept abusing all. Still, his pulse, BP were checked. Pulse was 98, BP 140/100. Blood samples were sent to forensic lab to ascertain alcohol content in his blood.”


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‘Treatment towards Sudhakar was inhuman’

Sudhakar, who spent more than 10 years at the Narsipatnam Government Hospital in Andhra Pradesh, was suspended from his duties in March after he openly criticised the Reddy government for failing to provide PPE kits and N95 masks to doctors treating Covid-19 patients.

He had alleged that the state government was giving N95 masks and PPE kits meant for doctors to politicians and the police.

A video of Sudhakar criticising the government was also shared widely. In the clip, he can be heard saying: “We are putting our lives at risk here. We are asked to use the same mask for 15 days and a fresh mask will be provided only twice a month.”

Speaking to ThePrint, Dr P. Gangadhar Rao, member of the National COVID Committee of the Indian Medical Association, said the manner in which Sudhakar was manhandled by the police was “inhuman” and “violated” human rights.

“We strongly condemn the way he was taken into custody. He was not carrying a weapon, he was alone, the number of policemen outnumbered him. Why treat him like that? We also saw a video where a policeman beats him with a lathi,” said Dr Gangadhar.

He added that Rao was one of the most experienced anaesthetists the Andhra Pradesh government had.

“Our next step of action is to get Sudhakar to write an unconditional apology for having used filthy language, abusing the chief minister and the government. We will then take our appeal to the CM seeking that he be reinstated,” Gangadhar said.


Also read: Face shields, gowns, masks — the new attire for cabin crew post lockdown


 

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