All aboard the Frozen Ark
Monday 18 August 2008
In just 30 years time a quarter of all animals, and a similar number of birds, are expected to disappear off the face of the Earth. Gone forever, and with them, our knowledge of their place in evolutionary history. Or possibly not…
Thanks to a ground breaking venture led by scientists at ZSL, the University of Nottingham and London’s Natural History Museum, the DNA of rare and endangered species is now being preserved for future generations.
Named after the biblical story of Noah, who herded animals onto a wooden ark to save them from a catastrophic flood, the “Frozen Ark” project is using the latest technology to freeze samples of DNA from the many thousands of species expected to disappear within the next few decades.
As mankind continues to drain the Earth of its resources, animal species are currently dying out at a rate amongst the highest seen in the history of the world. Although the Frozen Ark will not prevent the loss of species, it will compensate for the loss of knowledge that would normally die out with the animal.
Nearly every cell in an animal’s body contains DNA, specifying all the characteristics of that organism. Thus, by taking a small sample of tissue from those in danger of extinction and storing it at a low temperature to preserve the DNA, future scientists will have access to a treasure-trove of knowledge about many aspects of the animals biology and evolution that in the past would have been irreplaceably lost.
Where possible, the ark is also collecting sperm and eggs, which could be used for artificial fertilisation to assist with future captive breeding programmes.
There has been much speculation that the material stored may be used to resurrect extinct animals. However ZSL’s Professor Bill Holt was keen to reassure us that this is not purpose of the project:
'I am constantly emphasizing that we do not plan to resurrect extinct species, but unfortunately this is not what most of the popular press wants to hear.'
After all, the cloning of extinct animals would be almost meaningless unless their habitat in the wild was also restored.
Already on board
The ark currently holds samples from 119 taxa of conservation interest, including the Asian lion, Western lowland gorilla, giraffe, Amur leopard, Sumatran tiger, Asian elephant, Przewalski horse, Hartman zebra, okapi, chimpanzee, komodo dragon, Chinese alligator, yellow seahorse, Socorro dove, Partula snail species and the field cricket.
For more information see www.frozenark.org