Can Audubon's "Frozen Zoo" Save Endangered Species?


Audubon retrieves oil-coated turtle from NOAA. Photo: Audubon Nature Institute

With the recent declaration of the rusty grebe extinction, due to a non-native carnivorous snakehead murrel being introduced to its habitat, Lake Alaotra in Madagascar, as well as drowning in nylon fishing nets, there's no chance of resurrecting it. Unlike Cuba's Zapata rail, which is critically endangered by the mongoose and catfish - not as long as the Audubon Species Survival Center gets hold of its tail feathers. One-eighth of bird species are in peril and 16,000 endangered animals are officially on the IUCN Red List, so will freezing tiger sperm and bird embryos prevent the current Holocene Epoch's Sixth Great Extinction? The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) states there are 190 birds critically endangered, 372 endangered, and 838 near-threatened among the 10,027 total bird species. So the grebe's demise is a signal to scientists concerned that vanishing animal species is dominating the 21st century, vanishing faster than new species evolve. The last such period was the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction 65 million years ago, when dinosaurs disappeared, but that was likely caused by a giant meteor hitting earth--not human activity.

The Cryogenic Noah's Ark

Cloned African wildcat triplets. Images courtesy of Audubon Nature Institute

While it's swamped these days saving the oil-covered Gulf coast marine life, the Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans also houses a "Frozen Zoo" at its Center for the Research of Endangered Species (ACRES). It's storing the genetic material from thousands of animals - 500 species, from tigers and rhinos to frogs - on ice. Sperm, eggs, embryos, and skin cells have been frozen in order to recall the DNA later and revive a species through cloning. In theory, this genetic bank is a "safety net," said Dr. Betsy Dresser in a January episode of 60 Minutes on CBS-TV. "Animals are going extinct faster than ever before." So she's presiding over what she calls the "Emergency Room of the Wildlife Business" offering hope of animal resurrection.


Cloning diagram shows how to replicate endangered species.

Besides adventures in cloning wildcats, it rehabilitates endangered species. While Audubon's research isn't meant to replace protective efforts, such as "re-wilding," it's not the only such endangered genetic collection initiative. "Despite the best efforts of conservationists, thousands of extinctions have occurred before the animals could be rescued," states Prof. Olivier Hanotte, a genetic biologist with a similar initiative - the "Frozen Ark" at the School of Biology at the UK's University of Nottingham. This consortium is also collecting DNA of the Red List's 16,000 animal species under threat.

With breakthroughs in molecular biology and genetics--and the lower cost of sequencing genomes--it's possible that future scientists will be able to reconstruct extinct animals from preserved material they claim. Like the Audubon's Frozen Zoo, the genetic material is stored in liquid nitrogen at -196 degrees Centigrade, so it could remain intact for hundreds or thousands of years, and even bring back the wooly mammoth from DNA uncovered in permafrost.

More on endangered species:
110000 More Species at Risk Worldwide than Listed, Say Top Scientists
Record Numbers of Bird Species Threatened with Extinction in IUCN Red List Update
"100 Heartbeats:" Endangered Species Timebomb

Tags: Animals | Endangered Species | Genetic Engineering | GMO | Preservation

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