Frequently Asked Questions

Saving the DNA and the viable cells of the world's endangered animals

1. Why is this project important?
2. What will the database do?
3. What will the research programme do?
4. How many species do you hope to collect?
5. What are the most important species to preserve first?
6. How long will frozen cells remain viable?
7. How long will frozen DNA last?
8. Where will the DNA be stored?
9. To what future uses might the DNA be put?
10. Will the resurrection of species from frozen samples ever be possible?
11. Who is running this project?
12. Hasn't this material already been collected?
13. Who is funding the Frozen Ark?
14. What about ethical issues?

Answers:

1. Why is this project important?
Despite the best efforts of conservationists, thousands of extinctions have occurred before the animals could be rescued. There has not been enough knowledge or money to stem the tide. This pattern is being repeated across all animal groups and emphasises the importance of collecting the genetic material of endangered animals before they go extinct. The loss of a species allows the results of millions of years of evolution to be lost. If the cells and DNA are preserved, a vast amount of information about a species is saved. Recent scientific developments in molecular biology suggest that in a few decades the recreation of an animal is likely to be possible. The Frozen Ark Project is not a substitute for conservation, but a practical and timely 'back-up'.

2. What will the database do?
The global database is now running online and awaits data from our Consortium Members. Listings include the known endangered animals, the location and content of samples already preserved, and the species that need to be collected within specified time-scales.

3. What will the research programme do?
The research project will determine the optimal methods of humanely collecting and stabilising samples from different animal species and to study methods for the long-term preservation of DNA, tissues, cells and gametes.

4. How many species do you hope to collect?
The latest 2011 IUCN Red Data List of Threatened Species shows that 19,265 out of the 59,508 animal species assessed are threatened. We aim eventually to collect samples from all these (tissues, somatic cells, eggs, embryos and sperm). As it is believed that these species will be extinct in approximately 30-50 years, the collections will have to take place before then.

5. What are the most important species to preserve first?
About forty species are classified by the IUCN as extinct in the wild and held in zoos. They are the ones most urgently in need of sampling. Next in line are the species that make up the critically endangered, endangered and vulnerable groups.

6. How long will frozen cells remain viable?
In liquid nitrogen at -196oC, it is believed cells can remain viable for 100’s of years.

7. How long will frozen DNA last?
Recently the frozen remains of a mammoth were found in the Siberian permafrost. It was estimated that it had been there for 30,000 years, at an average temperature of -10oC. It still contained DNA of high quality. If DNA is stored in liquid nitrogen at -196oC it is believed it will survive intact for many hundreds and possibly thousands of years.

8. Where are the samples be stored?
The samples are stored in the institutions that make up the membership of the Frozen Ark Consortium.

9. To what future uses might the DNA be put?
The DNA sequence of an animal contains a great store of scientific knowledge including its specification, its composition, development, behaviour, ecology and evolution. For animals endangered but not yet extinct, the stored cells and gametes provide a renewable resource of variation for revitalising breeding programmes when loss of genetic variation through inbreeding threatens their survival.

10. Will the resurrection of species from frozen samples ever be possible?
The recent progress in molecular biology has been extraordinarily fast. We cannot predict what may be possible even within the next few decades. The cost of sequencing entire genomes is falling from billions of pounds or dollars to thousands. It is expected that in the next few years the cost will fall even further. It is now routine to isolate the genes that affect particular anatomical or behavioural characters. The reconstruction of extinct species from frozen material is not yet practicable, but the possibility is not remote. If we fail to preserve the genetic material, the animals will certainly be lost forever.

11. Who is running the project?
The project is being run by the members of the Frozen Ark Consortium in the UK and around the world who run their own Frozen Ark’s. The work is coordinated under the umbrella of the Frozen Ark UK charity at Nottingham University, which is directed by its Trustees, run by the Advisory board and where the database and website are housed, Expert Groups are set up and funding is acquired .

12. Hasn't this material already been collected?
Many institutions around the world store animal tissues but most of them are not in a form suitable for the long-term preservation of genetic material. Several museums, laboratories and zoos have collections of tissue and viable cells and gametes but few are aimed exclusively at endangered species. Very few samples have been collected from the invertebrates.

13. Who is funding the Frozen Ark?
We are very grateful to the charities and other donors who have supported the Frozen Ark. They are listed in the Support Section. We are in need of funding to support a Director, to help the administration of the charity, to expand the project, to help international efforts and to maintain the database and the laboratory work.

14. What about ethical issues?
We respect the rights of local communities and national governments over their natural resources, including genetic resources, and will protect them. Rules governing the export of samples from their countries of origin will be observed, as will procedures to prevent harm when taking samples.