Mass extinction fears: Scientists are freezing hundreds of species in emergency ‘biobanks’

'Frozen Ark' collects animal DNA in face of mass extinction

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According to conservationists, the Earth is presently losing its animal species at some 100–1,000 times the natural background extinction rate. In fact, the UN has estimated that the present biodiversity crisis is threatening the continued existence of a whopping one mission species of animals and plants. So great are the losses at the hands of human activity, that many scientists have called for these losses to be regarded as Earth’s sixth great mass extinction.

As the UK’s largest biobank of living tissue, Nature’s SAFE (Save Animals From Extinction) is one of a number of dedicated facilities across Europe capable of the long-term preservation of genetic material from those animal species that are at the greatest risk of extinction.

Nature’s SAFE explains: “Working with leading reproductive scientists and cryobiologists, we use state-of-the-art methods to preserve cells in a way that maintains viability.”

This, they added, allows the material “to be thawed and used to establish pregnancies, restoring endangered animal species.

“Nature’s SAFE, through its Living Biobank, is on a mission to safeguard these endangered animal populations for future generations and to realise our vision of a healthy planet.”

Nature’s SAFE works closely with various zoological facilities across Europe — and most commonly with Chester Zoo.

Whenever one of the animals in their care needs to be humanely put to sleep, or unexpectedly passes away, zoo vets collect some tissue samples for biobank preservation.

One recent addition, for example, was material from a 28-year-old chattering lory, a bright red and green forest-dwelling parrot endemic to North Maluku, Indonesia.

The species has been declared vulnerable in the “Red List” compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) — a fate down in no small part to the threat of trapping for the caged bird trade.

The bird’s tissues — and all his genetic code held within — have joined around 100 other species being stored indefinitely in Nature’s SAFE.

Material from each species is stored in vials of special, nutrient-rich, cell-friendly antifreeze, which is then cooled down to a nippy -384.8F (-196C).

At such low temperatures, the natural chemical processes in cells stop, leaving them in suspended animation.

If and when the time comes — whether in decades or centuries — they can be used to restore species that we may have lost in the interim.

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Nature’s SAFE founder Tullis Matson told BBC News: “It’s not going to stop extinction, but it’ll certainly help.”

“It’s a ray of light. That animal dying actually gives a bit of hope for the future of that species, because we can freeze those genetics.”

Alongside the chattering lory, species already held in Nature’s SAFE include a Javan green magpie — a bird from Java that is listed by the IUCN as being critically extinct, although some fear based on a lack of recent sightings that it may already be extinct in the wild.

Other animals represented in the biobank are the “mountain chicken” or “giant ditch” frog, a critically endangered amphibian from the Caribbean islands of Dominica and Montserrat, and tissues from the jaguar, a near-threatened species of big cat whose numbers are dwindling as a result of human pressures.

The latter samples came from a nine-year-old female named Goshi, who sadly passed away at Chester Zoo earlier this year.

Gabby Drake, one of the zoo’s veterinarians, said: “She was quite a young animal and she never had any cubs, unfortunately.

“It’s sad, but it’s nice to know that her living tissue will carry on.”

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