Over the last six months I've been visiting the Ambrose Monell Cryo Collection (AMCC) at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, to learn about the 87,000 frozen tissue samples from thousands of species within the collection. On my last visit, I met with Julie Feinstein, the manager of the laboratory, who explained the significance of the samples for research and conservation. “These are priceless, irreplaceable specimens. They might come from places where it is politically difficult to collect. It’s not free to travel around the world to get them,” she said. “All of them are animals that died for science so in a way, they are all really priceless.”
It was difficult to imagine the treasures inside the steel canisters and I asked whether I could look inside one. Feinstein put on plastic goggles and thick rubber gloves to protect against contact with the freezing vat. It was tall enough that Feinstein had to step onto a small platform in order to reach the top and open its lid. When she did, a thick white fog spilled over the sides. Feinstein invited me onto the platform while warning against inhaling the toxic vapor too deeply. Inside was what looked like a giant Trivial Pursuit pie with six sections. Each of the these held nine metal racks. With a gloved hand, Feinstein turned the pie like a Lazy Susan and pulled one out. It had 13 white boxes stacked on top of each other and inside each box was one hundred, two-inch vials, all labeled with a barcode and serial number. Using forceps she picked a vial from a box at random and rattled it to show me a specimen that looked like a black-eyed pea. “This is number is 110029,” said Feinstein, reading the barcode. We walked to her office in the next room and she opened up the collection’s database on a computer. “Here it is,” she said. “110029 is a mosquito from the New York City Department of Health.” She paused for a moment, searching her own memory. “I remember this, it’s someone’s PhD work.”
Feinstein’s job at the Cryo Collection is to impose order on a vast amount of data associated with the samples, making sure that each one is properly catalogued and available for any scientist around the world who might request them for research. She’s like the librarian of a lending library, if librarians were expert molecular biologists whose collections are filled with irreplaceable books that would be unintelligible and meaningless if cataloged or preserved incorrectly. Freezing tissue samples is not an easy task, or at least doing so in a way that preserves the integrity of their DNA for posterity. “It’s hard to store tissues because they are filled with entropy and disorder. They are cold and hard to handle. People store them in appropriate ways that are undependable,” she said. This is a job that requires tremendous capacity and patience for practical detail. She takes raw samples that are often collected under difficult conditions in the field and conforms them to laboratory standards designed to last hundreds of years. It’s a process that she described as rife with difficulty, the first challenge being that the samples are gathered by idiosyncratic scientists. She told me how one time a biologist dropped off a black trash bag filled with irreplaceable herbs from the mountains of Mexico, and a handful of xeroxed field notes; it took a year and a half to catalog the 850 samples inside the bag.