As one of the largest collections of its kind in the world, the University of Alaska Museum of the North's Genomic Resources facility contains over 160,000 tissue samples from voucher specimens archived in the Mammalogy, Ornithology, Ichthyology and Entomology collections. Collections of this type are vitally important as they preserve biodiversity associated with a specific place and time - diversity that is increasingly threatened by climate change, habitat degradation, and other factors. Subsamples of these tissues are made available to researchers worldwide, most often for molecular studies based on DNA or protein sequences. Such research provides insight into the origins, evolution, ecology, and conservation of species. As new technologies enable more information to be unlocked from well-preserved tissues, decades-old samples can be reanalyzed for a comprehensive view of changes occurring over large timescales. Thus, the value and utility of the collection only grows over time.
The geographic and taxonomic composition of the tissue collection is largely determined by the research interests of the museum curators and other local and regional biologists conducting research that involves specimen collection. It is the largest collection of such material from Alaskan species, with tissue samples dating back to 1936, though preserving fresh tissue did not become standard practice until the early 1990s. The storage facility consists of six ultra-cold freezers maintained at -70° C (-94° F) and three liquid nitrogen-cooled cryovats that maintain vapor-phase nitrogen at -170° C (-274° F). Under these conditions, biological and chemical activity that could degrade the tissues is halted, preserving the sample indefinitely. Liquid nitrogen for the cryovats is produced by the Museum's liquid nitrogen production plant. Currently, the collection is contained in five of the ultra-cold freezers, with the sixth freezer left empty as a backup in the event of a freezer failure. Only the highest quality tissue samples are stored in the cryovats. The extreme cold of vapor-phase nitrogen can preserve even the most fragile molecules, such as RNA.
In addition to Genomic Resources, the Museum maintains two molecular labs. Curators, staff, students, other University of Alaska scientists, and visiting researchers use one of these labs for standard molecular work with fresh or frozen tissues. However, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) procedures are prohibited within the Museum to protect against contamination of our specimens as well as the other molecular lab, the Ancient DNA Laboratory. The Ancient DNA Laboratory is the only such facility in Alaska and is regulated to ensure the highest degree of sterility. DNA extractions from very old and/or highly degraded material (e.g., permafrost-preserved or mummified tissue, bone, and feces) can be performed in the Ancient DNA Lab with confidence that the risk of contamination from external DNA sources has been minimized.