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The Frozen Zoo plans to resurrect formerly endangered and currently nonexistent animals from genetic material taken from recently extinct animals. At the San Diego Zoo, when an endangered animal dies, zoo researchers quickly service the animal to remove either sperm or eggs, a bit of external genetic material like a hair or a bit of skin, and freeze the material in liquid nitrogen.
Scientists believe the future survival of the northern white rhinoceros and a multitude of other endangered species depends upon this collection of genetic material, amassed over four decades in a genetic bank dubbed the “Frozen Zoo.” The icy containers could someday be utilized in experiments to bring extinct species back to life. The tanks at the Frozen Zoo hold the genetic material of over 10,000 species of animals linked to 1,000 different subspecies.
The zoo is engaged in renewed perseverance since a 42-year-old rhino, Angalifu, died from cancer in December at the San Diego Safari Park, leaving only five northern white rhinoceroses left worldwide – all of which are unable to produce offspring. Scientists are racing against time to find a way to artificially produce another white rhino before the others go extinct, which could be possible within the next 10 years.
Critics are questioning whether or not spending tens of millions of dollars on the process is worth it, considering there are not many of the animals left in existence. The genetic archive has helped improve in-vitro fertilization, artificial insemination, stem cell technology and cloning methods. Public debate is rising over how far experimentation with the aforementioned processes should go.
Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University’s Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment stated the Frozen Zoo is essentially re-arranging the chairs on the Titanic, referring to the inescapable notion of impending extinction. He said that the world first needs to address the major sources of species endangerment and extinction, such as climate change, population growth and encroaching development on wildlife habitats. If these problems are not addressed, scientists say that future clones or artificially produced offspring may never live in their natural habitat in the wild.
Barbara Durrant, the director of reproductive physiology at the San Diego Zoo, stated the challenges in resurrecting extinct species are not completely insurmountable. She explained there is no future plan to create a dinosaur park or bring back Paleolithic mammoths and saber-toothed tigers, as there is just no place for them in the world.
Recently, the Frozen Zoo has used sperm for artificial insemination to reproduce endangered animals like the Chinese monal pheasant and the giant panda. As well, frozen genetic material has revived the population of two types of wild cattle that were previously protected under the Endangered Species Act. However, there are problems with genetic defects that lead to immune deficiencies and other anatomical complications. Theoretically, scientists state that stem cells can produce and revive any body tissue, which means cells from a white rhino can make both a sperm and an egg, but this technique has only been successful once – in a mouse. Furthermore, scientists are looking to use in-vitro fertilization, however, the method has never been tested on a rhino.
Recently, Nola, the only northern white rhino left in North America, was said to be doing well, despite being 40-years-old. Zoo officials state that there may be plans to place her body in the Smithsonian so future generations are able to see the once prolific northern white rhino. Even though advances in cryogenics and stem cell technology are able to bring animals back from extinction, scientists say that more needs to be done to protect endangered species from potential decimation. If all else fails, the Frozen Zoo may be the elixir of life for extinct animals.
By: Alex Lemieux
Picture: Tambako the Jaguar – Flickr License