At first glance, you’d hardly call it a zoo. But these tanks lined up in this research complex are preserving the cells of animals – some endangered.
“The Frozen Zoo is the oldest collection of living cells, both skin cells, and reproductive cells,”
Marlys Houck, the curator at the Frozen Zoo, said. “With those cell lines, we are able to use them for genetic rescue and hopefully bring back the species from the brink of extinction.”
Over 10,000 individuals representing 1,200 species are packed away here, frozen in liquid nitrogen.
“There are a lot of species we’re worried about. Sumatran Rhinos are declining, the vaquita, it’s the world's smallest porpoise,” she explained.
The process of freezing a cell line collection starts with a skin biopsy or a growing feather from a bird, for example. These scientists get the cells to grow and multiply, and then they are added to the Frozen Zoo.
“We’re losing these species rapidly and each species is interconnected in a way, and sometimes we don't even know-how,” Houck said.
This year, a study published in the journal Nature found one in five species of reptiles are threatened with extinction, and that’s just one example.
“Dramatic concerns. Just in the last 10 years, biodiversity is crashing at a global level,” Geoffrey Morse, an associate professor of biology at the University of San Diego, said. He has been looking at biodiversity, especially insects, for 30 years.
He explained just how much of an impact losing biodiversity could have.
“Immediate impacts of this are going to be ecosystem services, so pollination is one I always go back to,” he said. “As honey bees decline we lose that ecosystem service.”
“As we remove biodiversity, we remove the opportunity to discover new drugs that might be present in plants or in animals that might be effective,” Morse said.
He said there’s not one cause we can point a finger at. “It’s land-use changes, it’s over exploitation, it’s pollution,” he said. “You can just keep moving down the list.
Scientists say we are in the sixth mass extinction event, meaning a loss of diversity in the plants and animals we see on the planet. Morse said as more animals and plants face extinction, preservation efforts including the Frozen Zoo become increasingly important.
“Just like it’s death by a thousand cuts, it’s recovery through a thousand bandages. And that's just one of the bandages. Another one is putting less carbon into the atmosphere, and another one is using fewer plastics,” he explained.
Houck and her team work every day to grow and preserve cell lines from a diverse range of species.
“We try to identify what might be next to decline but in general we just want to bank everything because we just don't know what will be next,” Houck said.
They are also working to share their knowledge with other scientists, too.
“We’re trying to train other groups around the world to use our methods,” she said. “We feel the pressure to the bank as many species as fast as possible.”