Brussels, 28 Jul 2004
A team of UK scientists is developing the first ever DNA and tissue bank to safeguard the genetic identity of thousands of animals facing extinction due to humankind's actions.
The project, called 'frozen ark', will store DNA and tissue samples of endangered species, and in some cases freeze entire colonies of animals so that research into their evolutionary histories can be continued, even if they become extinct.
The full DNA sequence of a species not only illustrates its evolutionary relationship with other animals, it can also tell scientists about its biochemistry, physiology and ecology.
Phil Rainbow from the Natural History Museum explained that 'Natural catastrophes apart, the current rate of animal loss is the greatest in the history of the Earth and the fate of species is desperate. For future biologists and conservationists and for the animals they seek to protect this network is of immeasurable value.'
'Nobody is doing anything like quite like this,' added Sir Crispin Tickellsaid, an environmentalist. 'This is the first of its kind. The project is not a substitute for conservation. It is part of the process of conservation.'
The project will involve the creation of a database holding worldwide information on DNA and tissue samples. As an insurance against damage or loss of the frozen samples, duplicates will be kept in various institutions around the world.
Although the immediate goal of the project is to preserve the species genes, scientists admit that one possibility would be that the material could, in future, be used to clone rare animals.
I think it will be used for cloning eventually,' said professor Alan Cooper from Oxford University. 'I believe you can make the case for bringing animals, like, say the tiger, back,' he added.
Professor Bryan Clarke, a population geneticist at Nottingham University warned, however, that in some cases there is little point in reviving species. 'It would be impossible to clone the dodo anyway, but even if you could, what would you do with it? There is no environment left for the dodo.'
Indeed, the cloning of extinct animals would be meaningless unless their original habitat is also restored.
However, Colin Tudge, a science writer and member of the frozen ark's steering committee explained that the project could be used to preserve the genetic diversity of a species already in decline and undergoing a serious weakening of its gene pool. Frozen Ark would put a stop to dangerously inbred populations, Mr Tudge said. To find out more about the frozen ark, please visit: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/news/items/frozen_a rk0704.html