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Cells from critically endangered animals to be stored in Europe’s first ‘biobank’

By January 19, 2021Science and technology

Cells from the Black Spider Monkey are among the animal cells already stored in the biobank. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Lizzie Roberts, The Telegraph | January 17, 2021 

Cells belonging to critically endangered species are to be indefinitely stored in Europe’s first ever “biobank” in an effort to save the animals from future extinction, The Telegraph can reveal.

The bank, known as Nature’s SAFE , will store the cells from animals including the Amur Leopard, Black Rhino and Mountain Chicken Frog, in cryogenic tanks in the UK.

Working in conjunction with Chester Zoo, the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria and researchers at the University of Oxford, the project has already banked cells from 17 species.

But the team is now racing against the clock to secure tens of thousands of cells from other animals which are under threat, including the Eastern Gorilla, Sea Otter and Asiatic Black Bear.

Nature’s SAFE has been granted charitable status in the UK and says it’s mission is “indefinitely preserving live cells from endangered species”.

The charity’s co-founder, Tullis Matson, who runs Stallion AI Services, was praised for saving one of Britain’s rarest horse breeds earlier this year through an innovative process of sexing semen, first revealed in this newspaper. “We’ve heard of the millennium Seed Bank, we are hopefully going to be the animal equivalent,” Mr Matson told The Telegraph.

The charity was established in response to biodiversity loss which is threatening thousands of species with extinction. “If we lose biodiversity we lose virtually everything on this planet, including ourselves, that’s how serious it is,” he said. “Because if you lose a certain type of animal… the whole deck of cards comes tumbling down”.

“We’ve got to have some way of saving these animals from disappearing, this is just one tick in the toolbox,” he added.

When an animal dies or has an operation experts will remove cell tissue samples, freeze them down to temperatures of -196C, and keep them in a dormant state indefinitely.

When thawed, the cells are able to “wake up” and regenerate enabling them to be used for future artificial reproductive programmes or animal regeneration.

Dr Sue Walker, Nature’s SAFE Co-Founder and Vice Chair, Head of Science at Chester Zoo, and Chair of the EAZA Reproductive Management Group said: “The cryo-preservation of reproductive cells and cell lines will be an important tool for population breeding programmes and the restoration of genetic diversity in animal species threatened with extinction.

“Having a facility solely dedicated to preserving these samples, Nature’s SAFE is a vital tool missing from the European zoo conservation toolbox.”

Nature’s SAFE will also store live sperm and egg cells and ovarian and testicular tissue from endangered mammals.

Professor Suzannah Williams, of the University of Oxford and a trustee of Nature’s SAFE, explained that cells ovaries can be frozen down and then grown in controlled conditions to make mature eggs.

Researchers in Japan have already been able to reproduce the full life cycle of mice, she explained, by harvesting their skin cells, turning them into stem cells and then into eggs which were fertilised to reproduce new mice.

It is hoped this process could be used in the future to bring animals back from extinction. “At some point in the future those cells that we’re collecting and we create with banking, the technology will exist to make them into stem cells, and to make new animals,” Dr Williams explained.

The animal cells already stored in biobank include the Columbian Black Spider Monkey, the Javan Green Magpie and the Asian Elephant.

There are currently more than 32,000 species threatened with extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.

Professor Philippe Wilson, of Animal Science and Bioinformatics, and One Health Medical Technologies at Nottingham Trent University, said: “The work undertaken by Nature’s SAFE is essential not only in its ‘nature’ but moreover its timeliness…

“I foresee the vision and ambition of the charity, placing it at the forefront of future international conservation efforts.”