Guest Post: Mad Collectors of Science

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Daly's fridgeSeveral years ago, I went on a reporting foray to Building 8 of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD. I had known about the work of John Daly, one of the world’s greatest-ever amphibian natural product scientists, and I decided I would learn more by doing a profile of him for my writing home at the time, Chemical & Engineering News.

There was no one in the galaxy who knew more about the origin, chemistry, and biological effects of frog toxins than Daly, who died in 2008 after 50 years at NIH. That scientific longevity, coupled to Daly’s relentless passion for the biomolecular niche he had embraced and helped to define, accounts for one of the most amazing refrigerators I have ever seen.

Daly and I had finished a long interview and a tour of his lab. It was time to go. As Daly escorted me down a hallway toward the exit, I spied a geriatric General Electric freezer that shivered as though it were about to give up its refrigerant spirits—Freon no doubt—for good. It also looked like it had to contain something astonishing, even it were only a ham sandwich that was prepared in 1973 and never eaten. I stopped in my tracks and stared. Daly took my cue.

When he opened the door in that unassuming hallway of an institutional building, he invited me into his private Library of Congress of frog toxins. Inside, it was brimming with a ragtag assemblage of hundreds of jars, vials, test tubes, centrifuge tubes, plastic bags, and other containers that had been finding themselves inside this chilly repository over the course of decades. Each one of them amounted to a priceless artifact from a scientific adventure that unfolded partly in a jungle and partly in an NIH lab.

As I put it later in the article, “housed in this single appliance is the most comprehensive and hard-won collection of frog skin secretions in the world. The chemicals in some of these vials have sparked research wildfires. One inspired an analgesic drug development program at a major pharmaceutical company. Some became workhorse molecular tools for biologists studying cell receptors and ion channels. The structures and value of others remain unknown.” That was one helluva case of biomolecular curios.

It takes passion to collect anything in earnest, like stamps, coins, baseball cards, or Barbie dolls. It takes scientific passion overlapped by obsession to become the world’s greatest collector of frog toxin, or, say, body odor samples, extrasolar planetary spectra, mites, firefly lantern proteins, poisonous spiders (for venom milking), meteor fragments, recordings of lingual dialects, ice cores, hominid tools, centenarian DNA, coccolithophores (whose hard calcite microanatomy has accrued over the ages into, for one, the White Cliffs of Dover), giant squid beaks, or, for that matter, any particular class of thing.

At the US Department of Agriculture’s research center in Beltsville, Ronald Ochoa, a mite researcher there—an “acarologist” to his own tribe—once showed me the nation’s premier collection of mites. Mites, some akin to microscopic dinosaurs and many with superlatively sordid sex lives, are among the most successful classes of creatures on earth, with representation in just about every niche known.

Ochoa and other systematic acrarologists turn to the collection, a century in the making, to help border inspectors identify what they are dealing with when they find incoming products at ports with evidence of unwelcome mite infestations. Water mites. Parasitic mites. Plant-feeding mites. Soil mites. Bee mites. In the collection, specimens of those and other types of mites are preserved on more than 333,000 slides—many stored in handsome multislotted portfolios—and in alcohol-charged vials and jars. Ochoa told me gleefully how proud he was when he heard his young daughter utter her first word: “mite.”

I love it when scientists I am visiting for a story share their passion-obsession by letting me take a peek at their lifelong collections that led to papers they are proud of and, in time, to their world-class expertise. There must be madness in a pursuer of knowledge who places the blackened skins of once-lethal frogs on the tops of computer monitors and thinks of them as decorations. Same for the olfaction researcher willing to gather the essence of body odor in swabs of sweat from hundreds of volunteers and then relish the pungent, one-of-its-kind chemical database as though it were infinitely more valuable than a bona fide treasure chest. It is a madness that is thankfully common in the science community and for which applying a remedy would be a crime against humanity.

If I could find a Medici descendant who would be eager to be my patron, I would orchestrate a year of curio touring; each day I would spend a few hours with a delightfully mad collector, slightly wild-eyed, who would open his fridge, cabinet, or many-shelved closet and show-and-tell his discoveries about nature’s forms and ways with the exuberance of a first-grader.

photo: Ivan Amato

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Ivan Amato, founder and facilitator of DC Science Cafe, has been a science communicator since the last millennium. From February through March of 2014, he is a journalist-in-residence at the Kavli institute for Theoretical Physics.

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