Ice zoos: how can animal cryobanks bring extinct species back to life?

Established in 1972 by Kurt Benirschke, a German-American pathologist and geneticist, the San Diego Frozen Zoo is the world’s first frozen zoo and houses the world’s largest collection of vertebrate animal cells.

The largest cryobank of animal genetic material in the world, Frozen Zoo, contains samples of more than 10,500 animals from 1,220 species.

Scientific Commitment

Since 1970, populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish have declined an average of 68%, according to the WWF Living Planet Report 2020. The report also states that due to habitat loss due to human activities, one million species of animals and plants are at risk of extinction in the coming decades and centuries.

At the current rate of biodiversity loss, some scientists believe that preserving specimens of species that may not exist tomorrow is no longer a visionary task, but a scientific obligation. “As efforts accumulated, we realized that we were collecting an irreplaceable repository of very rare animals”explains BBC Oliver Ryder, a geneticist at the San Diego Zoo and one of Benirschke’s early employees.

Since we have cages in a frozen zoo, we can now apply new methods and technologies to expand our understanding and gain more information to prevent the extinction of endangered species.

Extinction Program

The gametes and embryos thus preserved are an invaluable resource for conservation, assisted reproduction, evolutionary biology and wildlife medicine. DNA, skin cells, sperm, eggs or blood stored in test tubes will one day make it possible to resuscitate rare species. Oliver Ryder explains that “Since the creation of the Frozen Zoo, many milestones have been achieved in the field of genetics. Since the cloning of the first animal, a sheep named Dolly – in 1996″.

As of 2001, four endangered species have been cloned using genetic material from the Frozen Zoo, such as the Indian gaur (a humpbacked Asian wild bull), the banteng (a cattle species from Southeast Asia), the Przewalski horse (once found in throughout Mongolia and extinct in the wild until recently), and the black-footed polecat, which was thought to be extinct in the wild until its reappearance in 1981, but was later almost wiped out by an epidemic.

According to Tallis Matson of Nature’s Safe, a UK cryobank that collects living cells and gametes (sperms and eggs), “Over the next 10 to 30 years, it will be possible to turn these cells into pluripotent stem cells that can be reprogrammed to produce sperm and eggs. From sperm and eggs, it will be possible to create an embryo, and then implant it into a surrogate individual of an endangered species, providing much-needed genetic diversity.”. A technique that would allow completely extinct species to be revived.

⋙ The birth of the first cloned primates with the help of Dolly’s technical complex

The accelerating climate crisis will put additional pressure on ecosystems, making the work of cryobanks even more important. “I consider cryopreservation to be the absolute cornerstone of conservation. We are now facing the sixth mass extinction and we must be able to give future generations the opportunity to bring these species back to life.”Tallis Matson said on the BBC website.

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