Jul 29 2004
The DNA of rare and endangered species is to be preserved for future generations, thanks to a groundbreaking new project involving scientists at The University of Nottingham, the Institute of Zoology and London’s Natural History Museum.
The Frozen Ark will use the latest technology to freeze samples of DNA from all kinds of species — everything from mammals and birds to insects and reptiles — to ensure that the important genetic information contained within it is not lost should they become extinct in the future.
The first frozen DNA samples of endangered species — including an Arabian oryx, a Socorro dove, a mountain chicken, a Banggai Cardinal, a spotted seahorse, a flame-kneed tarantula, a British field cricket and Partula snails — were put into storage at a special launch event at The Natural History Museum on Monday July 26.
In the last 500 years, human activity has forced 820 species to extinction, or extinction in the wild, and the current rate of loss is among the highest seen in the history of the world. As mankind continues to use a disproportionate amount of the earth’s resources, placing huge pressure on wild animals and plants, this loss will inevitably continue despite the best efforts of conservationists. The current list of imminently endangered species stands at around 10,000.
Although the Frozen Ark will not prevent the loss of species, it will compensate for the loss of knowledge that would normally die with the animal. DNA contains the genetic building blocks for the species and can tell scientists about its biochemistry, physiology, ecology and even the way in which the species has evolved.
The project will collect, preserve and store DNA and tissue samples from animals in danger of worldwide extinction from captive breeding programmes, zoos and wild populations.
Professor Bryan C Clarke, a population geneticist in the University’s Institute of Genetics, said: "The Frozen Ark is not a conservation measure but rather a back-up plan for when all best conservation efforts have failed.
"The recent progress in molecular biology has been so fast that we cannot predict with any certainty what may be possible using this genetic information within the next few decades. Without it nothing can be done."
One of the ways in which The Frozen Ark may be able to help conservationists in the future is by using viable cells from the samples to restore essential genetic variation in endangered lineages to help ensure the survival of the species.
The project will be using the IUCN World Conservation Union’s Red List of Threatened Species, which supplies detailed figures on which species are most at risk of becoming endangered or extinct, to identify animals from which to collect DNA.
The core collection for The Frozen Ark will be set up at the Natural History Museum and the Institute of Zoology in London, with duplicate and complementary collections established at other sites around the world to safeguard their survival.
The project also aims, in the Institute of Genetics at The University of Nottingham, to compile the first database lists of endangered species taken both from the IUCN Red List and from other local, national and international and speciality lists. The database, which will be accessible on the internet, will include information about DNA or tissue samples that have already been collected, recording their location and methods of collection, preservation and storage. In addition, a laboratory will be set up in the Institute of Genetics at The University of Nottingham to research the best methods of collecting, preserving and storing the material from different types of species.