A tissue bank that will store genetic material from thousands of endangered animals has been set up in the UK.
The Frozen Ark, as it is called, will preserve animal “life codes” even after their species have become extinct.
This will allow future generations of scientists to understand long lost creatures, and may also help with the conservation programmes of tomorrow.
The project is supported by the Natural History Museum, the Zoological Society of London and Nottingham University.
Sixth mass extinction?
Scientists believe animals may be disappearing from our planet at a very high rate. Some even refer to this plunge in biodiversity as the Earth’s “sixth mass extinction”.
HOW THE PROCESS WORKS
1: Scientists take whole insects, or small tissue samples from animals so life is not endangered
2: Tissue may then be frozen for safe-keeping
3: DNA extracted from tissue sample, either straight after it was obtained or after freezing
4: DNA can be used for research, which may one day lead to resurrection of extinct species
5: Some DNA samples are sent to other labs as an insurance against damage or loss
6: Unused DNA can be frozen, potentially for thousands of years
Over the next 30 years, perhaps a quarter of all known mammals and a tenth of all recorded bird species could die out – as result of rapid climate change and habitat loss.
A multitude of less charismatic insects, worms and spiders are also said to be teetering on the edge.
“Many people don’t understand the current threat to biodiversity we face today,” said the project patron Sir Crispin Tickell, of Oxford University.
“Extinctions today probably equal the last five great extinctions.
“10,000 animal species are currently endangered and we have an amazing uncertainty about their importance in the web of life.”
When a species is snuffed out, it leaves a hole in the ecosystem and, perhaps, a dent in our conscience. But there is something else, too. The last animal of its kind to die, takes with it a tome of information.
“When the last individual of a species dies, you lose all the adaptations that have accumulated over millions of years of evolution,” said Georgina Mace, of the Natural History Museum.
“It would be incredibly reckless of us to allow these adaptations to be lost.”
The Frozen Ark project hopes to save a “back-up” copy of many species before they are lost. Their genetic codes will be stored in a frozen database, which can be called upon in the future to build knowledge and – perhaps – conservation initiatives.
In practical terms, this will require the laborious task of extracting tissue samples from endangered animals.
With large animals this procedure could involve taking a small piece skin while the animal is sedated to be tagged; or with small things like insects, it might mean taking the whole creature.
Scimitar Horned Oryx (Oryx dammah), NHM
The scimitar horned oryx is one of the first to have its DNA stored
The tissue samples will then be transported to a Frozen Ark lab (of which there will be several dotted around the globe) and stored at extremely low temperatures.
If all goes well, the DNA could potentially stay intact for tens of thousands of years – or more.
“DNA has been known to last 100,000 years when preserved in nature,” said Brian Clark, of Nottingham University. “But under ideal storage conditions we might be able to keep the samples going for longer than that.”
The first seriously endangered animals to enter the Frozen Ark will include the yellow seahorse, scimitar horned oryx and Partula snails, at a cost of £200 per species.
I think Noah would be proud of this project
Sir Crispin Tickell, project patron
The project hopes to go on to store thousands of other species, everything from mammals and birds to insects and reptiles. Priority will be given to animals at risk of dying out within the next five years.
And, the organisers are keen to point out that it will not be just the “cute and cuddly” that are saved.
“The damp and slimy are just as important – if not more important – than the warm and the furry,” said Sir Crispin.
At the moment the main purpose of this genetic “information bank” is to ensure we keep a record of past genomes. What it gets used for is the remit of future generations.
“This project is an essential tool which in the future will allow us to study DNA sequences of extinct animals,” said Bill Holt, from the Zoological Society of London.
“[It will give us] valuable insight into evolution and genetic relationships.”
Yellow seahorse (Hippocampus kuda), Natural History Museum
The last animal of its kind dies, it takes with it a tome of information
However, it might not be all academic. The Frozen Ark may also have some value to future conservation, the organisers cautiously suggest.
As well as raw DNA, they hope that cells and sperm will also be stored. And from cells, clones could be made.
It is just possible then that the Frozen Ark will allow extinct species to be resurrected at some point in the future.
Anne McLaren, of the Natural History Museum, said: “We are not into cloning in general – but there may be a rare example where frozen cells could be used for this purpose.”
No one knows where the Frozen Ark will end up, but as it sails its precious archive into the future, the possibilities seem exciting.
“I think Noah would be proud of this project,” said Sir Crispin. “We are doing rather better than he ever thought he could.”