Skip directly to site content Skip directly to page options Skip directly to A-Z link Skip directly to A-Z link Skip directly to A-Z link
Volume 16, Number 2—February 2010

The Critical Role of Permanent Voucher Specimens of Hosts and Vectors in Public Health and Epidemiology

Article Metrics
citations of this article
EID Journal Metrics on Scopus
A. Townsend PetersonComments to Author 
Author affiliation: University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, USA

Cite This Article

Zoonotic disease transmission systems constitute sets of interacting species, ranging from pathogens in wildlife reservoirs and transmitted directly to humans (1), pathogens in wildlife reservoirs and transmitted to humans by vectors (2), to pathogens in complex systems of multiple interacting definitive hosts, intermediate hosts, and vectors (3). Because these systems are so tightly linked to biodiversity, studies must include sampling of diverse species. Emerging Infectious Diseases journal is replete with such studies documenting the circumstances surrounding a disease case or outbreak. However, in developing these studies, researchers have been remiss regarding 1 major element of documentation of their work. Other elements are documented carefully. For example, when sequence data are extracted, primer sequences are presented in the Materials and Methods section, and numbers are given of sequences deposited in the GenBank database. Biodiversity samples, in contrast, are often identified cursorily or incompletely, and the documentation (i.e., the host or vector animal from which the pathogens were isolated) is discarded. I suggest to the public health, epidemiology, and disease ecology communities that careful biodiversity documentation is critical to full description of disease research. As a routine part of the research process, voucher specimens should be deposited in an appropriate scientific collection, and catalog numbers reported in publications,

Disease studies that lack careful biodiversity documentation are numerous, even in the recent literature. In the August 2009 issue of this journal, I found at least 4 articles that report sampling of hosts or vectors, yet make no mention of vouchers (47). Quite simply, and with few counterexamples (8), host and vector information is ignored, as if all identifications are perfect and complete and as if nothing remains to be learned from further study of the samples.

The reality, however, is quite different. First, technologies for diagnosis and testing have evolved considerably and will continue to evolve, with each iteration providing more complete information and insight into the pathogens present. The failure to preserve voucher specimens, however, makes such retesting and improved learning impossible. For example, in early studies of filoviruses, thousands of specimens were tested serologically for evidence of infection (9), with no positive results (10). However, new techniques would likely recover viral genetic material from those same samples (11), which could save time and expense invested in de novo sampling. Second, much remains to be learned from relationships between host population genetic structure and pathogen distributions. For example, some of the complexity of the distribution of Lassa fever depends on the particular lineage of Mastomys rodents present (12). Many host and vector groups currently considered single species are, in reality, complexes of species with potential (and possibly variable) epidemiologic importance. Such complexities can be explored only with detailed documentary information regarding which hosts did and did not harbor the pathogen.

Finally, and perhaps most urgent, treating biodiversity samples as disposable ignores opportunities to assemble archives of diagnostic samples for future studies. Host samples accumulated for 1 purpose could be recycled to form a strong basis for future studies of pathogens not yet known. Consider, for example, that those same samples of mammals from Africa from the early filovirus studies could have enabled quick and detailed study of Henipavirus distributions, in contrast to the time and effort it took to assemble other samples (13). Similarly, mammal samples assembled for early virus studies in West Africa (14) could have made possible rapid testing and evaluation of hosts for subsequent virus emergences in the region. In this sense, every biodiverse element collected as part of disease studies should be considered as potential key infrastructure for future studies, if properly documented and preserved (15).

Of course, biologic material that is potentially infected with dangerous pathogens carries with it some degree of responsibility, to ensure that unfortunate accidents do not occur. Two general paths are possible: 1) treatment of voucher specimen material to inactivate pathogens, such as preservation in formalin; or 2) notification by disease specialists to biodiversity specialists of any detections of pathogen-positive samples, such as samples that are inactivated or isolated. These steps are crucial, but the first option offers a way to avoid problems immediately with little extra effort.

My suggestion is not an empty dream but rather an open door. The biodiversity science community is fully prepared and willing to partner with the disease community in this effort. On the most proximate level, biodiversity specialists are eager to build scientific reference collections and are willing to curate and catalog voucher specimens. Vouchers provide permanent specimen identifiers that can be reported in publications and used to reference the voucher in genomic data bases. Furthermore, biodiversity specialists are interested in many of the same geographic regions as disease specialists and would welcome opportunities to obtain new specimen material from these regions. Finally, the role of pathogens in constraining host evolution, distribution, and ecology is of increasing interest in the biodiversity community (16,17). Many biodiversity researchers are extremely eager to explore new knowledge realms with disease specialists.

Prof Peterson is curator of ornithology in the Biodiversity Institute, University of Kansas. His research focuses on the geography of species’ distributions as well as on bird-borne pathogens such as influenza.



  1. Feldmann  H, Wahl-Jensen  V, Jones  SM, Stroher  U. Ebola virus ecology: a continuing mystery. Trends Microbiol. 2004;12:4337. DOIPubMedGoogle Scholar
  2. Komar  N. West Nile virus: epidemiology and ecology in North America. Adv Virus Res. 2003;61:185234. DOIPubMedGoogle Scholar
  3. Gage  KL, Kosoy  MY. The natural history of plague: perspectives from more than a century of research. Annu Rev Entomol. 2005;50:50528. DOIPubMedGoogle Scholar
  4. Ng  L-C, Tan  L-K, Tan  C-H, Tan  SSY, Hapuarachchi  HC, Pok  K-Y, Entomologic and virologic investigation of chikungunya, Singapore. Emerg Infect Dis. 2009;15:12439. DOIPubMedGoogle Scholar
  5. Hunsperger  EA, McElroy  KL, Bessoff  K, Colón  C, Barrera  R, Muñoz-Jordán  JL. West Nile virus from blood donors, vertebrates, and mosquitoes, Puerto Rico, 2007. Emerg Infect Dis. 2009;15:1298300. DOIPubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. Bermudez  L, Van Bressem  M-F, Reyes-Jaimes  O, Sayegh  A, Paniz Mondolfi  A. Lobomycosis in man and lobomycosis-like disease in bottlenose dolphin, Venezuela. Emerg Infect Dis. 2009;15:13013. DOIPubMedGoogle Scholar
  7. Evans  NJ, Bown  K, Timofte  D, Simpson  VR, Birtles  RJ. Fatal borreliosis in bat caused by relapsing fever spirochete, United Kingdom. Emerg Infect Dis. 2009;15:13313. DOIPubMedGoogle Scholar
  8. Mills  JN, Ksiazek  TG, Ellis  BA, Rollin  PE, Nichol  ST, Yates  TL, Patterns of association with host and habitat: antibody reactive with Sin Nombre virus in small mammals in the major biotic communities of the southwestern United States. Am J Trop Med Hyg. 1997;56:27384.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. Germain  M. Collection of mammals and arthropods during the epidemic of haemorrhagic fever in Zaire. In: Pattyn SR, editor. Ebola virus haemorrhagic fever. Amsterdam: Elsevier; 1978. p. 185–9.
  10. Peterson  AT, Carroll  D, Mills  JN. Potential mammalian filovirus reservoirs. Emerg Infect Dis. 2004;10:207381.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  11. Towner  JS, Amman  BR, Sealy  TK, Carroll  SAR, Comer  JA, Kemp  A, Isolation of genetically diverse Marburg viruses from Egyptian fruit bats. PLoS Pathog. 2009;5:e1000536. DOIPubMedGoogle Scholar
  12. Green  CA, Gordon  DH, Lyons  NF. Biological species in Praomys (Mastomys) natalensis (Smith), a rodent carrier of Lassa virus and bubonic plague in Africa. Am J Trop Med Hyg. 1978;27:6279.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  13. Hayman  DTS, Suu-Ire  R, Breed  AC, McEachern  JA, Wang  L, Wood  JLN, Evidence of henipavirus infection in West African fruit bats. PLoS One. 2008;3:e2739. DOIPubMedGoogle Scholar
  14. Kemp  GE, Causey  OR, Setzer  HW, Moore  DL. Isolation of viruses from wild mammals in West Africa, 1966–1970. J Wildl Dis. 1974;10:27993.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. Dragoo  JW, Matthes  D, Aragon  A, Hass  CC, Yates  TL. Identification of skunk species submitted for rabies testing in the desert southwest. J Wildl Dis. 2004;40:3716.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  16. Dragoo  JW, Lackey  JA, Moore  KE, Lessa  EP, Cook  JA, Yates  TL. Phylogeography of the deer mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus) provides a predictive framework for research on hantaviruses. J Gen Virol. 2006;87:19972003. DOIPubMedGoogle Scholar
  17. Woolhouse  MEJ, Haydon  DT, Antia  R. Emerging pathogens: the epidemiology and evolution of species jumps. Trends Ecol Evol. 2005;20:23844. DOIPubMedGoogle Scholar


Cite This Article

DOI: 10.3201/eid1602.091241

Table of Contents – Volume 16, Number 2—February 2010

EID Search Options
presentation_01 Advanced Article Search – Search articles by author and/or keyword.
presentation_01 Articles by Country Search – Search articles by the topic country.
presentation_01 Article Type Search – Search articles by article type and issue.



Please use the form below to submit correspondence to the authors or contact them at the following address:

A. Townsend Peterson, Natural History Museum, The University of Kansas,
Dyche Hall, 6th Floor, Lawrence, KS 66045, USA

Send To

10000 character(s) remaining.


Page created: December 13, 2010
Page updated: December 13, 2010
Page reviewed: December 13, 2010
The conclusions, findings, and opinions expressed by authors contributing to this journal do not necessarily reflect the official position of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Public Health Service, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the authors' affiliated institutions. Use of trade names is for identification only and does not imply endorsement by any of the groups named above.