THE FROZEN ARK PROJECT
Saving the DNA and viable cells of the worldʼs endangered species
INFORMATION ABOUT THE FROZEN ARK
Below you can find information about what The Frozen Ark is and what we are trying to achieve.
We are a biobanking charity, with headquarters at the University of Nottingham. The charity was founded in 2004 by Professor Bryan Clarke FRS, Dr Ann Clarke, and Anne McLaren FRS, with the help of the three founding partner organisations:
(i) the University of Nottingham,
(ii) the Natural History Museum (NHM), and
(iii) the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).
We are one of the many organisations that are working hard to halt the loss of biodiversity, by ensuring that all biological material that has been collected from endangered animal species is properly curated, and used responsibly and sustainably in conservation management and research.
We aim to achieve this goal by:
- coordinating global efforts in biobanking for endangered animal species;
- sharing expertise;
- offering help to organisations and governments that wish to set up biobanks in their own countries;
- providing the physical and informatics infrastructure that will allow conservationists and researchers to search for, locate and use this material wherever possible without having to resample from wild populations.
The four key areas we are currently working on are:
The Frozen Ark Project operates as a federated model, building partnerships with organisations worldwide that share the same vision and goals. The Frozen Ark consortium comprises research and conservation bodies, including zoos, aquaria, natural history museums and research laboratories, distributed across five continents. The consortium has grown steadily since the project’s launch, with new national and international organisations joining every year. The project is represented in the UK by universities, zoos, ZSL, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), the National Museums Scotland (NMS) and the NHM. The consortium also includes partners from Ireland, Germany, Denmark, Norway, the USA, Colombia, South Africa, India, Vietnam, Malaysia, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand and has a direct link to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) via its Conservation Genetics Specialist Group.
The importance of frozen samples is becoming clearer every day and we expect that demand for high quality DNA will increase exponentially in the upcoming years, to match the increase in the number of studies that aim to answer questions arising in conservation, genomics, proteomics, gene regulation and transcriptome processes. While preserved genetic material from endangered species is already available at several UK institutions we are still lacking a central reference point to link these often isolated biobanking efforts. To connect and improve the general state of the UK frozen collections for non-model and endangered animal taxa, we have partnered with the NHM, the NMS, the University of Edinburgh and the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) biobank, which includes a biobanking partner at the RZSS. The resulting infrastructure will harness existing samples, create common quality standards among partners and collaborators, develop protocols for sample collection, transport and storage, and increase the visibility of the samples available for conservation and research.
With our UK partners, we are currently developing a comprehensive web-enabled sample database using the open-source software Specify (The University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute). This bioinformatics resource will provide a user-friendly web environment for sample requests, sample-use monitoring, reporting, updating, and gathering of statistical information on how genetic material is being used. It will also allow us to identify where genetic material from endangered species is already stored in institutions around the world and determine which gene pools need to be prioritised for collection and preservation.
The main research interest of Frozen Ark is to understand the best methods for collection, transport, storage and curation of different types of biological samples from a large variety of animal species, each one carrying out their own specific technical challenges. Appropriate preservation of biological material is vital to isolate good-quality DNA, so we are currently running a series of experiments looking at DNA degradation under field conditions and how different storage methods affect DNA quality and integrity.
The Biodiversity Crisis
Global biodiversity is declining at an overwhelming speed, with many species on the path to extinction as a direct consequence of human activities. This not only compromises the survival of the other species that share the planet with us, but also reduces our quality of life and endangers our own future. With each species that disappears, vast amounts of information about their biology, ecology and evolutionary history is irreplaceably lost.
The Frozen Ark initiative was inspired by research conducted by Prof Bryan Clarke, his wife Dr Ann Clarke and colleagues.
Originally intended to focus on the evolution biology of a land snail, their project turned into a study of extinction as they observed that around a hundred species of snails died out over the space of 15 years or so. This was caused by the introduction of two alien species of snails in a governmental plan that went disastrously wrong. Remnant Partula snails were brought back to England. A captive breeding programme at London Zoo was started and tissue samples were frozen down to preserve the DNA, so the study could continue.
Several groups of people had previously advocated the collection of frozen tissues and cells. Many museums stored animal material of various kinds and several university laboratories and zoos had collections of tissue, DNA, banks of cells and gametes, mostly used for research purposes. Despite some exceptions, many tissue collections were not in a form suitable for the long-term preservation of undamaged DNA. Of those that were storing cells, none were aimed specifically at threatened species.
Little global collaboration between the institutes involved had developed. Clearly, a single point of coordination, promoting cooperation between relevant institutions was missing. The late Professor Bryan Clarke FRS, the late Dame Ann McLaren FRS and Dr Ann Clarke decided to take on the job and became the co-founders of a project dedicated to the endangered species DNA collection and preservation.
The project was set up as a registered UK charity at the University of Nottingham, which has generously supported it with offices, laboratory space, computers and bioinformatics support pro bono since its conception.
- Successfully started a laboratory for sample preparation and storage at the University of Nottingham;
- Successfully garnered the interest and support of museums, research colleagues and zoos worldwide who are now consortium partners;
- Over 700 samples stored in Nottingham including samples from the scimitar horned oryx (extinct in the wild), the Colombian spider monkey, pileated gibbon, siamang gibbon, lar gibbon, snow leopard, and Malayan tapir (all endangered);
- A collection of honey bee samples free from the varroa mite;
- Started cataloguing the samples held in consortium partner’s collections;
- Participated in a joint expedition (with the Natural History Museum and Zoological Society of London) to Vietnam for field collection of samples;
- Education – annual science days at Nottingham, training in sample preparation and storage, talks at Schools, etc.;
- Research – studies of best practice of sample preparation and storage, and standard operating procedures that can be most widely applied, database development and coordination of sample information across consortium partners.
Consortium partners currently hold tissues or DNA samples from more than 5000 endangered species.
The Scimitar Horned Oryx
The Scimitar Horned Oryx (Oryx dammah) is extinct across virtually all of its former range throughout Africa. It declined in numbers for a variety of reasons including overhunting, desertification, continuing war that exterminated it in Sudan, and overgrazing by livestock. In the 1960s it was classified as vulnerable and in 2003 pronounced extinct in the wild. Captive-bred oryx have been introduced back into Israel and Tunisia but it appears the populations are unsustainable without captive breeding.
The Socorro Dove
The Socorro dove (Zenaida graysoni) is unique to Socorro, one of the Revillagigedo Islands off the west coast of Mexico. After 1957 its numbers declined drastically due to the loss of habitat. In the early 1970s the introduction of domestic cats soon killed the rest. Fortunately, the bird has been bred in captivity since the 1920s.
There are plans to reintroduce it to its island home once the habitat has been made safe again. DNA provided by the Zoological Society of London and held in the Frozen Ark should help to support the rescue.
Polynesian Tree Snail
Polynesian tree snails of the genus Partula that lived on the volcanic islands of the Pacific and included more than 100 species (of which 14 species are preserved in the Frozen Ark). They were first recorded in Captain Cook’s voyage of 1774. These extraordinary snails provide a unique insight into the mechanism of evolution and a base line against which to assess the catastrophic effects arising from the introduction of exotic predatory species.
They have become endangered as a result of efforts to control the huge, edible African Land Snail (Achatina fulica), introduced in 1967 as a delicacy. Within seven years, the African snail become such a serious pest that the government introduced a predatory snail, the rosy wolf snail (Euglandina rosea), to control them. The predatory snail tracks its prey chemically, sits on the shell of its quarry inserting its head into the mouth of the shell to suck out the contents. The predator found the small, thin-shelled Partula much easier prey than the African land snails.
Since its introduction the predator has had a disastrous impact on the region’s land snail fauna, with over 50 partulid species made extinct across the islands. An international breeding programme for these snails is currently maintaining populations of 22 species. The Frozen Ark, which has preserved the genetic material of 14 of these species, provides a unique opportunity to bank much of the genetic line.
The Seychelles Frégate Beetle
The Seychelles Frégate Beetle (Polposipus herculeanus) is the world’s largest tenebrionid beetle and today is only found on the small Seychelles island of Frégate. Despite dedicated habitat management by the Island’s owners, vulnerability to introduced predators and a fungal disease in the beetle’s associated sandragon trees have resulted in the species becoming critically endangered.
A breeding and research programme was established in the Zoological Society of London in 1996. The initial population has now expanded to a full European Breeding Programme (under the auspices of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria) and involves institutions in the UK, Netherlands, Poland and Latvia. Being able to preserve a genetic representation of Frégate beetle generations closest to the original wild founder population in the Frozen Ark represents a major conservation safeguard for the Frégate Beetle programme.
The British Field Cricket
The British Field Cricket (Gryllus campestris) was, by the beginning of the 1990s reduced to a single surviving West Sussex colony numbering fewer that 100 individuals. This was due to loss of habitat. Over the last 14 years, a concerted conservation effort has been made by English Nature to establish new field cricket populations, through its Species Recovery Programme.
To this end, a long-term breeding and release programme has been running at London Zoo’s Invertebrate Conservation Unit to provide the large numbers (over 13,000 to date) of crickets needed to establish these new colonies. This programme has highlighted the fragility of specialised habitats.
- Continue to support global efforts on sample collection and storage.
- Continue research into new methods of sample preservation.
- Continue education.
- Catalogue the consortium’s collection.
- Increase the number of consortium partners and provide assistance.
- Train researchers from other countries in methods and procedures.
- Collaborate with potential stakeholders.
- Filling sampling gaps and grant applications.