Carles Lalueza Fox: "A museum is always an unfinished work"
An interview with the biologist specialising in ancient DNA and director of the Natural Sciences Museum of Barcelona.
After a long and prolific research career studying ancient genomes and the evolution of hominid species, Carles Lalueza Fox has been facing a new challenge for a few months now: to reconcile his work in the laboratory with that of directing a major institution in the city, the Museum of Natural Sciences of Barcelona.
We talk to Lalueza Fox about how she has taken over from Anna Omedes, the previous director, and what her priorities are, as well as other aspects of her research and professional career.
How have your first few months at the helm of the Museum been going?
Well, it’s a very varied and diverse task. There are many fronts open, not only in research, but also in the collections, exhibitions, the social work that the Museum carries out… Managing resources and managing a team of more than 50 people is an exciting challenge.
Will you continue along the lines of Anna Omedes, the previous director?
She had her team and her approach to the Museum. In my opinion, a museum is always an unfinished work. Sometimes, when someone has been working on the same project for a long time, they are tempted to think that it is their work, but I think that a museum is an institution that evolves because society evolves too. A museum must be able to face the challenges of the 21st century, such as climate change, for example. No matter how much you think it is a closed work, it is not. And it will happen with the person who comes after me, that is to say, the Museum will continue to evolve.
And what legacy has she left you?
Her great legacy is to have set up the permanent exhibition in the Forum, which opened in 2011 and was undoubtedly a huge challenge, as it was a building that had not initially been designed as a museum.
What are the priority challenges you have to face?
There are many. The main one I have set myself is to ensure that the museum has a research part and that this is oriented towards the challenges we face as a society: priorities such as climate change, the biodiversity crisis, sustainability, planetary urbanisation or the mass extinction of species. I would like the Museum to have a voice in these issues, as they affect us as a society and, moreover, they can be partly related to the Museum’s own collections, which have more than three million specimens.
What does this relationship consist of?
There are millions of species on Earth, of which it is estimated that between 35,000 and 40,000 are in danger of extinction. The vast majority of species are not genetically described or studied: less than 1% have their genomes sequenced and you cannot understand species conservation problems, such as the loss of genetic diversity, without studying samples from the last 100 to 200 years such as those held in natural science museums around the world.
Therefore, natural science museums have the possibility to intervene in this crisis not only by describing species but also by describing the genetic diversity they have lost and by being active players in the challenges we face as a society. This is a scientific challenge that requires a research centre to be able to face it.
What are your other priorities?
Another thing we are facing at the Museum is that we have the collections and research in a building that is not suitable and was not created for this purpose, the Castell dels Tres Dragons. Moreover, the fact that it is a heritage building limits us to certain installations. Therefore, it is not only a research project that needs to be pushed, but it also has a structural need.
Yours is a brilliant scientific career. How did you decide to take the leap to head an institution like the Museum?
It is something very personal. I simply had the feeling that I was always doing the same thing, without learning too many new things, and I felt very comfortable doing this. I also felt the need to try to have more of an impact on dissemination and social change; I think I have something to contribute. I have the feeling that science is somewhat isolated from society and, despite having media impact, it does not have a wider reach.
On the other hand, we are coming from two years of pandemic in which I have been at home a lot and I suppose that if it hadn’t happened I wouldn’t have made the change. I saw that I needed to change and perhaps something else would have come up that would have interested me.
Has your own research also pushed you to make this change?
I must say that the research we are doing with the Museum’s collections can be applied to the research I have been doing in recent years. For example, I have recovered some genomes of extinct species and I am studying the lost diversity of endangered species, and I think this can have an application in conservation. So it makes perfect sense that I can promote this field from my knowledge.
Where do you think research at the Museum should go from here?
Firstly, for it to be effective, the Museum should have more people dedicated to research than it does now. This is linked to the idea of providing new knowledge about the current planetary crisis, but also to the idea of providing resources to the Museum through competitive projects.
Therefore, we need to increase the number of staff to pursue the lines of research I mentioned earlier related to the Anthropocene, the period in which we are changing the planetary climate and affecting all ecosystems. We need to identify the lines in which the Museum can contribute something and try to attract young talent that wants to work here and that can also contribute new resources through European and national competitive calls for proposals. Young talent that can also collaborate with the conservation team and vice versa.
And how would this research centre fit into the strategic project of the Ciutadella del Coneixement (Ciutadella of Knowledge)?
The truth is that I prefer to speak of the “coastline of knowledge”, because the research centre should be linked to the exhibition part that is in the Forum, and there is undeveloped land there that would be ideal for establishing it. This would make it possible to link both the exhibitions and the administrative management, collections and research in the same environment.
If we talk about the coastline of knowledge, we will see that not only can we include everything that will be developed in the Mercat del Peix, but we also have the UPC in the Besòs campus, the Institute of Marine Sciences and the PRBB among others, all of them focused on aspects such as diversity, sustainability, climate change… It is really rare to find a city today with so many research centres of this level on the coast.
The important thing would be to establish strategic connections between all these centres, or the groups working on actions that could be common because this way there would be more critical mass.
And what would happen with the Ciutadella, then?
In the Ciutadella Park, where we have the Martorell Museum and the Castell dels Tres Dragons, I think it should be reformulated because of the very idiosyncrasy of these buildings, which are heritage buildings and in which laboratories and research centres cannot be built. They should be buildings more related to the dissemination of knowledge, an exhibition area, a part of the history of science in Barcelona, and this could be linked to the immediacy of what is done in the Mercat del Peix.
Anna Omedes commented that whoever took over from her would do so at a good time to innovate. Have you set yourself new goals that involve innovation?
Museums are undergoing several revolutions. One of the most important is the technological revolution. In the case of exhibitions, for example, technologies such as augmented reality make them more visual and immersive. All you have to do is download an app for your mobile phone and focus on some labels on the floor, and different organisms from the ecosystem where you are, which you can photograph with your mobile phone and everything! Technologies like these make it possible to expand the exhibition space and make it more immersive. This is something that is just beginning and that in the future will make these experiences more personal, despite being among other visitors.
What about other aspects of the Museum, such as the collections?
In this respect, it is worth mentioning the digitisation that was started a few years ago, but which is really very important to continue and which represents a huge technological challenge, common to all natural science museums in the world. We have three million specimens, but there are huge museums with more than a hundred million! It is, therefore, a huge task, not only of digitisation but also of creating a digital twin containing all the information on the material specimen in the collection. And this information must be accessible and searchable by everyone.
Let’s talk a bit about your research. This year the Nobel Prize in Medicine will be awarded to Svante Pääbo for his work on the genomes of extinct hominids in which you have been involved. Do you feel part of this recognition?
Well, these are research teams and I have been collaborating with him since 2005. We must have a dozen papers published together, but he is recognised for his pioneering role in a field that began in 1984 and in which Pääbo did his first work in 1985. Today everything seems possible, but we must bear in mind that at that time, revealing the genome of an extinct being such as the Neanderthal seemed impossible. He initiated it and this has been his central role.
In the past, we coincided with the Neanderthals. How did both species live together?
Today we can see the results of some encounters. Some of these encounters ended badly; in others, there were crosses with fertile offspring. We carry 2% of Neanderthal genes in our genome. It is clear that they were different groups anyway and we have different dynamics.
And why did they become extinct?
Neanderthals are very interesting when we talk about extinct species, because they show all the genetic signals that we see in species that are already extinct or endangered.
What kind of signals?
I am talking about signs of demographic decline where you accumulate chromosomal fragments without diversity in your genome, because populations are decreasing, you find fewer and fewer individuals to reproduce with and inbreeding is increasing. Therefore, low genetic diversity can be an indicator that a species is in danger of extinction. We have seen this in Neanderthals.
Because of our species?
Well, we have observed that Neanderthals were already endangered when modern humans were encountered from Africa. When we look at the genomes of Homo sapiens from the Upper Palaeolithic, thirty to forty-five thousand years ago, we don’t see these signs of decline, i.e. they were not demographically small groups like the Neanderthals were. They had different demographic dynamics.
The decline in Neanderthals goes back a hundred or two hundred thousand years, long before the arrival of Homo sapiens. Our species may have been more numerous, with larger, more interconnected, more flexible populations, which may have been the last remaining Neanderthals. But in any case, Neanderthals declined earlier because of a clearly harsh environment, with glacial episodes… Europe was a pretty hostile place to live.
So, were we better able to adapt?
Probably, there was a demographic change associated with technology, perhaps also associated with genetics. Both the Neanderthals in western Eurasia and the Denisovans in the east had very small populations. Homo sapiens populations from Africa interbred with these species; they accepted hybrids and this allowed them to adapt more quickly to the harsh conditions of high latitudes. Africa was a warmer and more stable environment, even in terms of circadian rhythms and climatic seasonality. In Europe you have darkness in winter and light in summer, which also requires a series of adaptations that have cognitive effects. Our species adapted more quickly to these conditions thanks to hybridisation with Neanderthals.
On the other hand, perhaps there were pathogens, as suggested by some genes present in the immune system, physiological changes related to a more carnivorous diet, probably because there are fewer plant resources in cold latitudes… In other words, we adapted more quickly in all these conditions and, at the same time, this could have accelerated the extinction of the Neanderthals.
Is our species still evolving even though technology allows us to adapt better to the environment?
Some obvious adaptations of the past no longer make sense. Imagine genes involved in myopia. In the old days, it was a difficulty to adapt; now with glasses or an operation you survive and, at the same time, you leave the genes to your offspring. This week a paper came out in Nature about the genes that were involved in the survival of epidemics of the Black Death in the Middle Ages. This disease killed between 30 and 50% of the European population in the 14th century. Is this random or are there genetic variants that predispose you to survive? Some such variants have been found and, in fact, we are the descendants of the people who survived, many of whom had these variants. With Spanish Flu something similar happened. This is evolution and our species is still evolving.
And with COVID-19, has the vaccine allowed us to pass through the filter of natural selection?
With the COVID-19 pandemic, the same thing must have happened, although with differences, as more older people died and therefore the offspring may have been less affected. But there have also been social and poverty factors that have conditioned access to the vaccine. For example, from the beginning of the pandemic, it was observed that low-skilled people who could not telecommute and who were engaged, for example, in delivering packages or attending supermarket checkouts, had a higher exposure to the virus. In countries such as the United States, these jobs are clearly distributed by population, and African Americans were disproportionately affected by the disease compared to other populations. Pandemics involve genetic, social and medical aspects.
What is the direction of your current research?
I have several open fronts. I continue to study European populations in more historical periods. I have literally hundreds of genomes from the Punic, Roman, Visigothic, Islamic period… There are very interesting things.
Then I’m also working on extinct species. I have the idea of trying to do a project to “de-extinct” a butterfly, that is, to create a butterfly that has nothing from the extinct species. It’s something that has never been done before.
It’s actually an excuse to develop a series of methodologies that can be applied in conservation. Often, endangered animals accumulate a series of what we call deleterious mutations that make the last individuals of the species practically unable to reproduce because their fertility is affected. Even if there are some individuals left alive, they are so non-viable that the species itself is doomed to disappear. These mutations could be eliminated with gene-editing techniques.
This is one of the things I would like to do over the next few years, as well as getting more involved in the search for the museum. As long as the body holds out!
Well, you have for years, don’t you?
In that country when you reach a certain age, they force you to retire. Even if you are an emeritus researcher, you don’t receive funding. In the United States, on the other hand, you do… I could be an intern in the United States.
Throughout your career you have done a lot of dissemination, published books, participated in media and talks… Why do you think this practice is important?
It is becoming increasingly clear. In European projects, for example, you are now asked to explain not only what you are going to do in terms of research but also how you are going to transmit it to society. This is something that used to be perceived as a researcher’s hobby, but now it is seen as an essential part of the social return on research.
And directing the Museum is another step in your dissemination work. How do you see the future in this sense?
At the moment it is very interesting. I mean, there is a lot of work to be done and there is a very good team of people with me; in fact, I have realised that working in a museum is often more vocational than working in academia. Now I find myself looking forward and learning things every day – and I think I can also contribute – and that’s what matters at a certain age. You have to get out of your comfort zone. I hope it all comes to fruition and interesting things come out of it.