Kate on Conservation

How is the UK’s First Biobank Protecting Endangered Animals

bio bank scientist microscope

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.

The Great Auk became extinct in 1844, as result of human activity. Taxidermy specimens such as this may hold important genetic information.

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.

2019 good year for animal conservation - tiger image courtesy born free

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.

My own lucky encounter with 2 black rhino
The critically endangered black rhino

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

passenger pigeon dna from museum collections
DNA extracted from a taxidermy passenger pigeon – an extinct species. On display at Making Nature exhibition.

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.

Cheetahs are the flagship example of an endangered species suffering low gene diversity. Cheetahs retain only 0.1–4% of overall genetic variation

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. 

Margot Raggett and Dan Richardson with Sudan last male northern white rhino
Margot Raggett and Dan Richardson with Sudan, the last male northern white rhino. Sudan died in March 2018. In January 2020, scientists successfully created embryos of the functionally extinct Northern white rhino. As of July 2021, 12 embryos are now in existence. The next step for these embryos will be a major hurdle: developing a viable pregnancy with a surrogate Southern white rhino.

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

Learn more about the illegal wildlife trade

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