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The Genetic Resources Collection is a world-class resource that supports molecular phylogenetic and evolution studies of University of Texas researchers and collaborators, as well as the research community worldwide. It includes >40,000 samples housed in -80 ultracold freezers and liquid nitrogen storage tanks. The latter provide a secure form of storage in which the samples will be useful for decades.

The advent of molecular biology has enhanced the uses of museum collections. Formerly, museum scientists prepared specimens by injection with formaldehyde to stop decomposition, as in the case of amphibians, reptiles, and fish. Or, they prepared dry skin and skeleton specimens from birds and mammals, discarding the internal organs.

Today the preservation of tissues from brain, liver, and muscle during fieldwork is routine. You will find scientists in  remote forests with canisters of liquid nitrogen, which is used to freeze samples. These tissues are used as sources of DNA for evolutionary studies. So in addition to actual collections of animal specimens, the scientists are building collections of genetic resources.

The collection was assembled over 30 years, beginning at a time when few such resources existed, through the efforts of Integrative Biology professor David Hillis, long before their value was appreciated. Most are from amphibians and reptiles, with some from insects, fishes, birds, mammals. The tissue samples represent years of field research by faculty and graduate students, not just in the U.S. but across the world. Countries of emphasis include Mexico, Central America, South America, and Southeast Asia.

Re-building such a collection today would be impossible. In fact, many species from which samples were collected 30 years ago are now extinct.

The collections support research by many undergraduate and graduate students in systematics, ecology and evolutionary biology. In the course of a project, the researchers may assemble new tissue samples from fieldwork. These samples are then integrated into the collection so that they serve both as a voucher to verify the original research, and also as potential research material for the future.

Results from the published genetic research, primarily the DNA sequences from various genes, are deposited by researchers into GenBank, a federally funded public database of genetic data. Genbank is a crucial link between the published research paper and the actual data derived from the genetic resources. Likewise, the Genetic Resources Collection at UT is an equally important link between  GenBank information and the specimens from which the samples were taken.

The Genetic Resources Collection transferred to the care of the Biodiversity Collections (then Texas Natural History Collections) as part of a databasing project funded by the National Science Foundation. We have databased the entire collection, and are in the process of integrating these data with the original data associated with the specimen in the museum collections.