Created in the mid-1970s by Kurt Benirschke, a geneticist at the University of California, San Diego, the sign that hung above the center years ago resembled a fortune cookie message rather than a laboratory motto: ” You must collect things for reasons you don’t yet understand.” It almost looks like a haiku. But it made all the sense in the world half a century ago. And still has it now. What Benirschke and his team have since “collected” are tissues from rare or endangered animals, samples that help preserve diversity.
When Benirschke got down to business five decades ago, many people could see his work as eccentric. At that time genetic technology was in its infancy. It was not known if the material they were collecting would be of any use and, if so, how or when it could be used. Today his collection is already giving results and is known internationally as Frozen Zoo. Yes, Frozen Zoo, in Spanish. And it’s not the only one of its kind.
What are frozen zoos? Facilities like the one promoted by Bernischke in San Diego (USA) resemble conventional zoos in one important detail: they are dedicated to animals. In everything else, they are rather little alike. Instead of cages or feeders, they use “freezers”, facilities that allow cryopreservation and keep, for example, cells frozen at -196ºC or preserve DNA from endangered species. Some facilities even have vaults with sealed boxes containing thousands of crop seeds.
Frozen Zoo began using a liquid nitrogen tank decades ago and today has more than 10,000 cultures of live cells, oocytes, sperm and embryos representing around a thousand taxa, including an extinct species, the Po’ouli or honeycreeper. black. In the case of The Frozen Ark, some 48,000 samples of 5,500 species are accumulated, the vast majority DNA.
What do they do? Its goal is to create a great library of biodiversity to contribute to the preservation and study. “We can apply new techniques and technologies to expand our knowledge and learn more relevant information in order to prevent the extinction of endangered species,” explains Oliver Ryder, a geneticist at the San Diego Zoo to CNN. Since they began their mission in the 1970s, the study of genetics has made great strides that allow them to get more out of the samples they have been collecting over the past decades.
Thanks to the genetic material preserved in San Diego, it has been possible, for example, to clone several species in danger of extinction, such as the Indian gaur, Przewalski’s horse or a certain type of ferret. Beyond the new specimens, recalls CNN, cloning is useful to address one of the major problems faced by communities of threatened species, on the verge of extinction: low genetic diversity. By having samples taken decades ago, the variety is enriched and, consequently, its own resilience against threats is reinforced.
Beyond cloning itself. Not everything is cloning. As Frozen Zoo collects, its researchers dedicate efforts to other lines of work that favor animals. One of those they have underway wants to develop a sample bank to identify illegal specimens of primates or duikers in the bushmeat trade. Another, just as exciting, Genome10K, aspires to sequencing the genomes of 10,000 species for study.
“To understand the consequences of biodiversity decline, scientific research needs access to current and historical information and biological material from declining species,” notes Frozen Ark. The data can be used for studies as diverse as cancer research, limb growth, or better understanding recovery processes.
Some international references. Due to its age and the fame of Kurt Bernischke himself, who died in 2018, perhaps the best-known center internationally is the Frozen Zoo, in San Diego; but of course it is not the only institution in the world focused on the study and preservation of endangered or alien species. In the United Kingdom there is The Frozen Ark cryobank, the result of the collaboration of several top-level institutions, such as the University of Nottingham.
Another cryobank in the United Kingdom is Nature’s Safe, founded with the aim, it details, of “saving animals from extinction through the collection, indefinite storage and regeneration of reproductive cells and cell lines.” Something different is the so-called “vegetable Noah’s ark”, an impressive world bank with samples located in Svalbard, Norway, where more than a million samples of seeds of different crops from almost all over the world are kept.
A task more urgent than ever. If in 1972 Bernischke’s task and, especially, that of Frozen Zoo could sound like eccentricities, today his role is more necessary than ever. WWF data shows that the biodiversity of our planet is not going through its best moment. According to your report Living Planet IndexBetween 1970 and 2016, vertebrate populations, including birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and fish, have plummeted 68%. The data is 8% higher than the previous report, from just a couple of years ago, and it does not paint a very rosy scenario: we are seriously affecting the habitat of hundreds of thousands of species.
The debates it brings to the table. Although its approach and mission bear little resemblance to that of conventional zoos, questioned for years by environmental associations, the truth is that at least part of the activity of facilities such as the Frozen Zoo open up debates that are as interesting as they are thorny. For example: that we can “de-extinct” a disappeared species, does it mean that we have to do it? And if so, will we allow the effort required for such a feat to be profitable? Colossal Laboratories & Biosciences is already moving to “revive” the woolly mammoth, but if it succeeds, it already begs the question: Would it have a patent?
The sector itself faces significant challenges, derived largely from the costs and complexity of its activity. The aspiration of a cryobank is to have as broad and rich a base as possible; but as it grows, its maintenance will also become more expensive. After all, if today we make profits from the samples collected by Bernischke in the 1980s, it is because that material has been preserved for almost 40 years. To achieve this, the sector needs to guarantee that it will have funds for liquid nitrogen and cryotanks, it must show its value and join forces.
Images | Wesley Pribadi (Unsplash) and Julia Koblitz (Unsplash)
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism