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Genebanks: Preserving genetic diversity for Earth’s future


The idea of freezing and storing the genetic materials of endangered plants and animals in some offsite location sounds more like a Jurassic Park sequel than a reality, but it is something that is in the works.

Endangered species protection programs, zoos, and plant conservatories work to preserve the Earth’s animal and plant population, but in order to preserve the richness of biological diversity, alternatives such as gene banking must be used, scientist said today at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting.

As endangered species – both plant and animal – disappear from their natural habitats and become limited to zoos and animal parks, researchers are searching for alternatives to conserve these species.

In situ conservation, which aims to keep a species in their ecosystem or habitat, is a top priority. However, in order to protect endangered species, there have been additional ex situ conservation efforts, protecting endangered species in zoos and botanical gardens, and placing their DNA into gene banks. Thanks to recent developments in cryobiology, it is possible to keep tissues alive and unchanged for hundreds of thousands of years.

Using cryopreservation technologies, the Zoological Society of San Diego has created a "Frozen Zoo," which stores viable cell lines from more than 3,200 individual mammals, birds, and reptiles, representing 355 species and subspecies.

Oliver Ryder, the head of genetics at the Center for Reproduction of Endangered Species at the society, said that while there should be a continued effort to preserve species in their habitats and in living collections such as zoos and botanical gardens, much of the future will be based on DNA or cell and tissue materials preserved in banks.

Ryder added that these banking efforts are often misinterpreted as we don’t have to save endangered species because they’re in the freezer. Instead, banking adds to researchers’ ability to knowledgeably contribute to conservation instead of working through guesswork. By studying animals’ DNA, scientists can learn genetic aspects important to animal survival. Armed with that information, researchers can determine the best conservation action. He added that while this won’t fix the problem, it is one way to forestall it.

Kathyrn Kennedy is the president and executive director of the Center for Plant Conservation (CPC) in St. Louis, Mo. The consortium’s mission is to conserve and restore the rare native plants of the United States. She emphasized the importance of ex situ conservation in securing and planning for the recovery of endangered species.

She noted that the first line of defense against losing an endangered plant is to get genetically representative samples from the wild. Seeds are often the best way to store this material. The CPC currently has 607 species in its national collection.

Stanley Leibo, a cryobiologist at the University of New Orleans, was among the first to report successful cryopreservation of embryos approximately thirty years ago. Since then he has worked on freezing embryos and gametes of many different species.

Leibo reviewed a broad range of issues in the long term viability of preserved cells with particular reference to his experience in the preservation of sperm and oocytes. Because of species differences, cryobiology is not easy to do, but necessary to preserve the richness of the planet’s genetic diversity.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is the world’s largest general scientific society, and publisher of the journal, Science. Founded in 1848, AAAS serves 134,000 members as well as 272 affiliates, representing 10 million scientists.

Monica Amarelo | EurekAlert!
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