Bringing Species Back … From the Brink

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I don’t often get to use the term gobsmacked, but that is how I was rendered when I saw the film Jurassic Park. I remember the 1993 cinema trip vividly: clutching my popcorn, wide-eyed, as the first dinosaur, a brachiosaurus, ambled across the screen. Walking out with my parents, I jabbered with excitement: “Could we really make dinosaurs real again, Dad? Could we? Could we?”

These memories came flooding back as I read Natasha Bernal’s piece in Wired UK, exploring the world of biobanking animal cells. Bernal answers the question of whether extinct animals could be brought back with a tentative yes — science has long proved that “frozen cells from extinct animals could potentially be used to revive species” — but that is not what biobanking is about. The intention is to increase the diversity of living species, cloning to prevent further loss, rather than to bring back what is already gone. As a species dwindles, so does its genetic pool, and frozen cells from extinct animals could potentially be used to help prevent extreme inbreeding. 

Bernal’s case study is Tullis Mason, a chap who sports “three-quarter length shorts” even in a lab coat. Matson runs an artificial insemination company for racehorses from his family’s farm in Shropshire, England. However, on the side, he is also planning to save the animal kingdom by building the biggest biobank of animal cells in Europe. It’s not always a dignified business, with Bernal describing Mason hooking an elephant penis into a device that looks like “a huge condom,” but the science and the ethics her article explores are fascinating. We may not be about to bring dinosaurs back to life, but with help from biobanking, life already on this planet might still find a way.

This is why, back at Matson’s farm, there is a tiny, black, felt-like ear and two bat testicles the size of olive pits on a lab bench. The Seba’s short-tailed bats at Chester Zoo are usually housed in the Fruit Bat Forest, where visitors can feed them as part of a £56 “experience”. Though not currently listed as endangered, with global biodiversity at a tipping point, it’s likely that no species is entirely safe. This bat died of natural causes, but its genetic material will live on.

The first thing that Lucy Morgan, a scientific advisor at Nature’s SAFE, does is shave the ear. “Ears grow to a certain extent throughout our lifetime, so they’re a cell type that’s already wanting to grow and regenerate itself,” she says. “So when choosing a sample that you’re trying to pick to culture in the future, it’s a good one.”

She puts the ear to soak in chlorhexidine to clean it from bacteria and switches on a timer. After two minutes, she transfers it to a petri dish, and starts cutting it into small pieces the size of chocolate chips. Using tweezers, she puts them in cryovials filled with cryopreservant. The tiny testicles will be preserved whole. They couldn’t get any semen out of them – a common problem for animals that are too small to preserve in the traditional manner.

Safely pipetted into a cryovial or straw, an animal’s tissue, semen or ova are deposited into the cryogenic tank, ready to be unfrozen when they may be needed for repopulation programmes in zoos or, if feasible, the wild. In the case of some creatures, whose anatomical challenges do not currently permit artificial insemination using sperm or ova, the samples may stay there for decades. For now, all of Nature’s SAFE’s samples are in one location, but the charity aims to build a backup so that tissue can be split into different places and safeguarded for the future.

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