Frozen Zoos: Can Cryogenics Save Biodiversity?

Can cryogenics save biodiversity? That’s certainly the idea taking hold in many “frozen zoos”.

Frozen zoos (also known as biobanks or cryobanks) are genetic storehouses for all sorts of animal DNA. Tissues and reproductive cells (egg and sperm) can be extracted from living animals for long-term storage. Even if a species goes extinct, the extraction of their DNA beforehand provides a genetic template that can be used for later research.

Cells can be cryogenically frozen and stored for future research/use. Examination of chromosomes, ova, sperm, and other preserved tissues can provide future insight into extinct species, as well as potentially helping to restore populations of endangered species. By freezing reproductive cells of endangered animals, researchers can later thaw out these cells and implant them in a living specimen in a process called in vitro fertilization.

Cells are frozen at -196 degrees Celsius. At this point it is so cold that cellular activity ceases, so no metabolic processes occur that could degrade the cells over time.

Cells can, essentially, last forever in the cryogenic environment, so they can be thawed out years later. The idea is that the frozen zoos will provide a reserve of genetic information. Should a particular population begin to decline, the cryogenically preserved DNA can then be thawed and put to use.

The San Diego Zoo is home to the world’s largest frozen zoo, with samples of over 1,000 species housed in cryogenic tanks. With so many animals housed in such a small space, the research opportunities are extensive. Frozen zoos have so much potential, and they offer a bit of hope in regards to the world’s environmental plight. So many species are extinct or in danger of going extinct. Frozen zoos promise the possibility of a brighter future, a chance to reverse the fates of many dying species.

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