Photo: California Academy of Sciences

In order to save endangered species, biologists are often forced to take a step that feels counterproductive: sacrificing wild specimens for study. Now, a pair of grad students have devised a virtual tissue bank that could help reduce the number of rare plants and animals killed in the name of science.

Tens of millions of biological samples are collected each year, and most are disposed of after they’re used once. Collecting these tissue samples is not only expensive and time consuming, but sacrificing animals for science can be ethically problematic in the case of threatened and endangered species. If scientists only knew what samples had already been collected and stored, they could use some of those rather than collecting plants and animals anew.

Enter Otlet, an online platform that for the first time makes this sort of information available for a wide variety of species. Co-founders Lauren Meyer and Madi Green came up with the idea after experiencing firsthand how frustrating the problem of sample collection can be.

Meyer, now a Ph.D. candidate at Flinder University, struggled to get enough shark liver samples to complete her undergraduate honors research. Weeks after completion, she realized that others had the samples she needed.

“I was at a conference when a colleague casually mentioned saving a pile of tiger shark livers in her freezer, but now she didn’t know what to do with them so was going to throw them out,” Meyer told Earther. “ I was heartbroken that my research was so drastically limited by a mistimed conversation.”

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After signing up for an account on Otlet, researchers can upload a list of samples to an online database, noting the tissue type, species, and where the sample was collected. Other researchers can then search for it and reach out to their colleagues discuss sharing. If the samples someone needs aren’t available, a scientist can post a request.

Otlet (and its shark-specific predecessor SharkShare) already include more than 8,000 samples from 115 difference species, including dozens of IUCN Red List threatened or Data Deficient species. Some of these—like the Smoothtooth blacktip shark, a species thought extinct until a research team found some for sale in a fish market—are incredibly hard to find. Green, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Tasmania, stressed that sharing samples between research labs should help to reduce the number of animals sacrificed for science.

Other scientists are excited by the virtual tissue bank’s potential. “Otlet’s sample sharing platform promises to satisfy a long overdue need in the biological sciences,” Dean Grubbs, the associate director of research at Florida State University’s Coastal and Marine Laboratory, told Earther. He added that while many researchers store thousands of samples from specific projects, others outside that scientist’s network rarely know about it.

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Recently, samples from four species of rarely-studied Antarctic skates were placed into the Otlet database. Muscle samples from these skates have already been shared between multiple labs, and will be used for everything from toxicology and diet studies.

More collaborations like this are now being set up. “We believe that by enabling the efficient use of samples between many scientists we can accelerate what and how we learn about the natural world around us,” Green said.

Dr. David Shiffman is a Liber Ero Postdoctoral Research Fellow studying sustainable shark fisheries in Canada. You can follow him on twitter @WhySharksMatter, where he’s always happy to answer your questions about sharks.