The bilby, the northern hairy-nosed wombat, the numbat and Leadbeater's possum are among Australia's most endangered animals. To try to ensure their survival, genes from the animals are now to be preserved through a unique arrangement between Monash University and the New South Wales Zoological Parks Board.
As a result of a formal agreement, the two organisations will operate an animal gene resource centre to store frozen genetic material from Australian and other rare animals from around the world. The centre will be jointly operated by the university's Institute of Reproduction and Development and the board, which runs Sydney's Taronga Zoo and the Western Plains Zoo in New South Wales.
Reproductive material such as sperm, eggs and embryos from endangered animals will be preserved in liquid nitrogen at the institute's Melbourne-based gene storage laboratories. This will then be able to be used, via in vitro fertilisation, to establish breeding colonies of the various species in an effort to repopulate their original areas.
Other Australian animals under threat of extinction whose genes will be preserved include the mallee fowl and the bridled nail-tailed wallaby. Genetic material from exotic animals such as the Sumatran tiger, the golden cat, the snow leopard and the African black rhinoceros will also be stored in the laboratories.
Although most endangered species could be bred in captivity, board director John Kelly said the cost of caring for large numbers of animals was enormous and there was the danger of inbreeding, genetic drift and domestication.
"Storing reproductive tissue allows an animal, as an embryo, egg or sperm, to be kept in a refrigerator at very low cost. This way we can maintain very large numbers of animals in 'captivity' until we have dealt with predators and other threats to their existence in the wild," Dr Kelly said.
Alan Trounson, deputy director of the Monash institute, said frozen testes from African black rhinoceros, a lion tamarin and a pygmy hippopotamus, along with those from a number of rare Australian species, were already stored in the laboratory.
He said that little had been done so far to preserve the genomes of Australian animals or to link up with international programmes that had already begun to collect the vital tissues from other wild animals.
Sperm from Gus, a black rhino who died in California, will be used to fertilise eggs in female rhinos held at the Western Plains zoo. It was hoped to have the world's first in vitro-fertilised rhino within two years, Professor Trounson said.
Under the agreement, Monash will undertake research on agreed animal species, monitor the frozen genetic material and establish a computer data base for all genetic storage units in Australia.
The board in turn will collect and transfer genetic material from the field to Monash and its two zoos, implement appropriate conservation programmes and select genetic resources from endangered species.