A frozen zoo in Nottingham ‘bio-banks’ wildlife threatened with extinction


We thought it appropriate in this United Nations ‘International Year of Biodiversity’ to highlight not only work by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and its partners (see ‘Livestock Diversity Needs Genebanks Too’, an opinion piece by ILRI Director General Carlos Seré published on the SciDevNet website on 21 May 2010) to conserve breeds and genes of native livestock that are rapidly disappearing, but also those of wild animals similarly threatened.

The Frozen Ark is such an initiative. It is led by Olivier Hanotte, an animal geneticist who spent many years at ILRI working to conserve livestock genetic resources indigenous in developing countries. These days Hanotte is running The Frozen Ark Consortium, a worldwide group of institutions coordinated from an office within a Frozen Ark Unit at the School of Biology at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom: Frozen.Ark@nottingham.ac.uk

The aim of the Frozen Ark is to preserve, for hundreds if not thousands of years, critical information about the species collected. As their website explains: ‘Despite the best efforts of conservationists, thousands of extinctions have occurred before the animals could be rescued. There has not been enough knowledge or money to stem the tide. This pattern is being repeated across all animal groups and emphasises the importance of collecting the DNA and cells of endangered animals before they go extinct. The loss of a species destroys the results of millions of years of evolution. If the cells and DNA are preserved, a very great deal of information about the species is saved. . . . For animals endangered but not yet extinct, the stored DNA and cells can also provide renewable resources of variation for revitalising captive breeding populations when the loss of variation through inbreeding threatens their survival.’

What has caught the public’s imagination is the possibility—a possibility ever more credible in light of ongoing, transformative, breakthroughs in molecular biology, particularly genetics and genomics, as well as drastic falls in the cost of sequencing genomes—that in future scientists will be able to reconstruct extinct animals from such preserved material.

‘While the reconstruction of extinct species from frozen material is not yet practicable, the possibility is not remote,’ says Hanotte. ‘If we fail to preserve the DNA and cells, the information and the possibilities will be lost forever. If DNA is stored in liquid nitrogen at -196 degrees Centigrade, it should survive intact for many hundreds, and possibly thousands, of years.’

The International Union of the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List distinguishes more than 16,000 animal species that are under threat. The Fozen Ark aims eventually to collect the DNA of all these species, and the viable cells (somatic cells, eggs, embryos and sperm) of as many as possible, over the next 50 years. But Hanotte is quick to point out that the Frozen Ark Project is not a substitute for conserving the world’s diverse wildlife species, but is rather ‘a practical and timely backup of their genetic material.’

For more information, visit the Frozen Ark Website.

And watch the online version of this week’s broadcast (30 Mar 2010) of the American television program ’60 Minutes’, which explores the possibility of Resurrecting the Extinct from frozen samples.

Genebanks needed to save farm animal diversity of the South—and assure the world’s future food supply

Carlos Sere amongst farm animals

Opinion piece in SciDev.net by Carlos Seré, Director General ILRI

Today, scientists are reconstructing the genomes of ancient mastodons, found in the frozen north. Dreams of resurrecting lost species rumble in the collective imagination. At the same time, thousands of still-existing farm animal breeds—nurtured into being by generations of farmers attuned to their environments—are slipping into the abyss of extinction, below the wire of awareness.

Livestock genetic diversity is highly threatened worldwide, but especially in the South, where the vast majority of remaining diversity resides. This diversity—of cattle, goats and sheep, swine and poultry—is as essential to the future world food supply as is the crop diversity now being stored in thousands of collections around the world and in a fail-safe crop genebank buried in the Arctic permafrost. But no comparable effort exists to conserve the animals or the genes of thousands of breeds of livestock, many of which are rapidly dying out.

Hardy and graceful Ankole cattle, raised across much of East and Central Africa, are being replaced by black-and-white Holstein-Friesian dairy cows and could disappear within the next 50 years. In Viet Nam, the percentage of indigenous sows declined from 72 per cent of the total population in 1994 to only 26 per cent just eight years later. In some countries, national chicken populations have changed practically overnight from genetic mixtures of backyard fowl to selected uniform stocks raised under intensive conditions.

Some 20 per cent of the world’s 7,616 breeds of domestic livestock are at risk, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. And change is accelerating. Holstein-Friesian dairy cows are now raised in 128 countries in all regions of the world, and an astonishing 90 per cent of all cattle in the North are of just six tightly defined breeds.

Most endangered livestock breeds are in developing countries, where they are herded by pastoralists or tended by farmers who grow both crops and livestock on small plots of land. With survival a day-to-day issue for many of these small-scale farmers, they are unlikely to make conservation of their rare breeds a priority, at least not without significant assistance. From Africa to Asia, farmers of the South, like the farmers of Europe, Oceania and the Americas before them, are increasingly choosing the breeds that will produce more milk, meat and eggs to feed their hungry families and raise their incomes.

They should be supported in doing so. At the same time, the breeds that are being left behind not only have intrinsic value, but also may possess genetic attributes critical to addressing future food security challenges, in developed or developing countries, as the climate, pests and diseases all change. Policy support for their conservation is needed now. This support could be in the form of incentives that encourage farmers to keep traditional animals. For example, policies could support breeding programs that increase the productivity of local breeds, or they could facilitate farmers’ access to niche markets for traditional livestock products. And policymakers should take the value of indigenous breeds into account when designing restocking programs following droughts, disease epidemics, civil conflicts or other disasters that deplete animal herds.

But even such assistance will not enable developing-world farmers to stem all the losses of developing-world farm animals. A parallel, even bigger, effort, linking local, national and international resources, must be launched to conserve livestock genetic diversity by putting some of it ‘in the bank’. The cells, semen and DNA of endangered livestock should be conserved—frozen—and kept alive. The technology is available and has been used for years to aid both human and animal reproduction. It should also be used to conserve the legacy of 10,000 years of animal husbandry. Furthermore, such collections must be accompanied by comprehensive descriptions of the animals and the populations from which they were obtained and the environments under which they were raised.

We should know the type of milking goat that is able to bounce back quickly from a drought. We should know the breeds of cow that resist infection with the animal form of sleeping sickness. We should know the native chickens that can survive avian flu.

We should do all we can to assist farmers and herders in the conservation of these endangered animals—especially now, in the midst of rapid agricultural development. And if some of these treasured breeds fail to survive the coming decades of change, we should at least have faithfully stored and recorded their presence, and have preserved their genes. It is these genes that will help us keep all our options open as we look for ways to feed humanity and to cope with coming, yet unforeseen, crises.