Biological tissue database building scientific collaboration
By Jessianne Castle EBS Contributor
LIVINGSTON – Lauren Meyer, a doctoral student at Flinders University in South Australia, nearly failed her Australian honours degree simply because she couldn’t get her hands on enough shark liver.
“I had spent months trying to source shark liver, which sounds odd, but is very difficult to obtain and I couldn’t find enough for the research I needed to do,” she wrote in a recent email to EBS. Meyer, who grew up in the Northern Rockies, was looking at toxin buildup in large sharks and needed the livers in order to measure the toxin levels.
In an effort to access samples, she attended shark fishing tournaments, contacted fishermen and called fellows scientists, to no avail. “Shark livers are especially hard to find because you need to kill the shark to get the tissue samples,” she said. “Despite my constant e-mailing and calling of research teams along the entire east coast of Australia, I was out of luck as no one had spare liver samples at the time.”
Just a few months later, while attending a conference, she was surprised to hear that another scientist had leftover shark liver sitting in the freezer. “I didn’t realize I just wasn’t contacting the right researchers who did have samples.”
Meyer says it was that moment when she realized just how disconnected universities and research institutes are when it comes to utilizing biological samples. Frustrated from missing out on the opportunity to collaborate, Meyer and fellow biologist Madi Green decided to create a tool that would help researchers fully utilize their samples and create collaboration.
In June of 2018, the duo launched Otlet, a database designed for sharing and finding biological samples. Without handling the physical tissues, Otlet allows scientists to upload information about the kinds of animal samples they have left over after investigative projects. Researchers looking for animal tissue or data can then search the database and request access to samples.
With nearly 300 active users spanning 30 countries, Otlet serves to connect scientists internationally, making research more accessible, affordable and timely.
According to Meyer and Green, thousands of researchers collect biological samples from around the globe every day in an often expensive and lengthy process. Meanwhile, others discard samples or leave them closed up in storage, unsure what to do with them. On top of that, destructive sampling—when an animal must be euthanized in order to obtain a specific tissue—often results in unused tissues and leftover samples that could be otherwise utilized.
“Invasive and destructive sampling will still be necessary for a number of different research programs, irrespective of our platform and effective research collaborations,” Meyer said. “However, it is with this destructive sampling we see the tool being especially useful.”
She gave the example of connecting different research teams looking at diet with stomach contents, muscle and liver, those studying brains and eyes, and those understanding populations through genetics. “By being more effective with sharing these samples, it will result in less need for destructive sampling in the long run and help expand research programs now.”
Meyer said there are many applications for this collaboration within the Greater Yellowstone and beyond. “Connecting research teams around the world, including those in Yellowstone, means that the scientists studying bird migration from Canada have easier access to genetic samples of birds as they move through the national park; the cougar researchers from across North America can share blood samples to look at diet across different habitats; and the fish ecologist based at the University of Montana can access jaws from freshwater fish in Australia to compare morphology.”
“In a time when the natural world is facing so many challenges, being able to study and understand more, on global scale, is really powerful,” she added.
In the spirit of accessible information, Green and Meyer decided to name their database Otlet after the Belgian information scientist Paul Otlet. Born in 1868, Otlet spent his life fostering universal access to knowledge by reimagining how to connect people to information well before the advent of Alan Turing’s computer.
Otlet attempted to create a repository of all the world’s knowledge in his Mundaneum project, whereby facts and ideas were written on individual index cards. The collection totaled over 12 million cards and people could request information by mail. It’s reported that by 1912, Otlet and his team managed 1,500 requests annually.
According to Meyer and Green, Otlet’s fostering of international work and emphasis on building connections are ideals that drive the overall global expansion of knowledge. On the database’s website, they write, “These are the visions we seek to instill within Otlet today.”
Visit otlet.io to learn more.