In places such as the UK, biodiversity loss is now widely recognised as a crisis in its own right. Populations of the UK’s native wildlife species have plummeted by an average of 60% since 1970, meaning the approach to handling this issue now requires solutions and input from many different sources. One of those areas — which I have previously only touched upon lightly on this blog — is the use of lab science, for ‘de-extinction’ purposes.
In 2018, the UK’s first zoological biobank was awarded £1 million to give researchers across the UK access to tissues, cells and DNA from endangered species and other wildlife, which can be used in their research and for conservation planning. In this guest post, Anamika Menon explores the role of biobanks and cryogenically preserving genetic materials for conversation and research.
The UK’s First Biobank To Protect Endangered Animals
It has now been widely agreed by scientists that the Earth is currently going through its sixth mass extinction event. Populations and species have been increasingly disappearing from the face of the Earth over the past century.
More than one million species are currently threatened with extinction and many more will follow suit. This requires new conservation strategies besides the usual methods of conserving protected areas and restricting illegal wildlife trade.
What is a Biobank?
A biobank is a type of biorepository that stores biological samples for use in research whenever required. The biological samples, mainly the DNA, tissues, and cells of animals are collected and preserved according to certain international standards and guidelines.
The UK’s First Biobank
The UK’s first zoological biobank aims to do exactly this. The biobank brings together collections of frozen materials of animals in museums, zoos, research institutes, and universities across the UK.
They do this by bringing together physically and informatically (i.e. through the processing of information), many samples from species that have been collected in the past, as well as sampling many new species and populations in the future.
This national collection of frozen animal material in the biobank will be available as a resource for researchers in the UK and worldwide. With the help of this vast collection, fundamental research can be enhanced which will provide a strong backup for species conservation.
How does the Biobank help in species conservation?
Using the biobank, efficient curation of existing and future frozen collections of animal samples can be done. This means not only having samples of common animals, but also access to endangered species, livestock breeds, and wildlife.
The animal tissue in the biobank also helps to expand our understanding of a species. The biomaterials from wild species help to save gene diversity and improve captive and wild animal management.
DNA fingerprinting with biobank samples
Biobanking animals by their DNA is also useful for research and conservation. The DNA from the samples can be used in DNA fingerprinting to curb illegal wildlife trade, learn more about a particular species, and also perhaps, bring some species back from extinction! The DNA of wild and zoo animals stored will help in conservation management.
Rewilding extirpated species using biobanks
Extirpated species are those which are locally extinct in one region but are still present in another area. For instance, the Asiatic cheetah used to extend throughout the South Asian region but now exists only in Iran.
Biobanking also offers the possibility of rewilding extirpated species by contributing to studies that benefit wild populations of species. Maintaining cell lines of species that have become extinct or extinct in the wild can preserve some of their characters in the biobank.
Treating wildlife diseases using biobank samples
Samples from a biobank can support clinical studies that can lead to successfully diagnose and treat diseases. This can help to arrive at results that support the conservation of animal populations beyond those that have already been affected.
For instance, tissue samples from eye lesions of the Canada Goose which have been stored in a biobank have been used to isolate potential pathogens and develop a treatment.
Hence, if this species is ever at the brink of extinction because of the disease, they can easily be saved using the treatments developed from the biobank.
Ensuring the continuity of species
Cryogenic storage of biomaterials also offers many broad opportunities like helping to understand the fundamental biology of unstudied species. It also helps in enhanced conservation breeding, genomics, and veterinary medicine.
Reproductive biotechnology and fertility preservation are important in saving and maintaining endangered, threatened, and vulnerable species. Biobanks have the most important role in storing gametes (an organism’s reproductive cells) required for such biotechnological operations.
There has been a lack of knowledge of species biology, and inadequate space, funding, and facilities for conservation programs that involve tissues and cell preservation, until now. However, it is now gaining a foothold as one of the most important ways to protect endangered animals.
The UK Biobank makes all the data from samples across the UK available on a common web portal that can be accessed remotely. The Biobank makes studies on endangered species easier as there is no requirement to collect more DNA from these animals.
About the author
Anamika Menon is a freelance writer specializing in environment and sustainability. She is also a master’s student in Forest Sciences and seeks to educate people about environmental issues in her free time.
Learn more about Endangered Species
- Endangered Species Around The World guest post
- How To Help Endangered UK Wildlife
- Britain’s largest and most endangered spider species rediscovered
- What is the Connection Between Wildlife and the Ecosystem?
- Endangered Species Superheroes comic book
- Top 10 reasons to love pangolins
Learn more about the illegal wildlife trade
- Wildlife Trade Laws must be reformed with ‘One Health’ approach
- Born Free Launches Global Nature Recovery Investment Initiative
- End Wildlife Crime: New initiative presented at the House of Lords calls for an International Agreement
- Ways to prevent the next pandemic
- Inside the Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference 2018
- Hear my chat with UN Ambassador Aidan Gallagher at the Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference 2018
- Remembering elephants at CITES 2016
- Cecil the lion’s legacy at CITES 2016
- Rhino horn trade debate ahead of CITES 2016