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Animal DNA to be frozen in huge national bank

The DNA of thousands of animals, including endangered species, is being collected in a national network of freezers.

A new £1-million biobank is being created using collections of frozen animals, specimens and samples from all over the UK.

The CryoArks Biobank will be the first national bank of frozen animal material in the country. It will gather and preserve the DNA, tissues and cells of endangered species for years to come.

Frozen samples are currently held by a range of research institutions, including at the Museum in London. They are stored at very low temperatures to remain stable for research well into the future.

The study of DNA can help scientists to understand how animals have evolved, why they behave in certain ways, why they are vulnerable to disease and how they cause disease in humans.

DNA sequencing of genes, and more recently entire genomes, has become cheaper and easier than ever before.

For instance, researchers at the Museum are using and sharing frozen samples to help find treatments for schistosomiasis, a parasitic worm that affects more than 250 million people

A drawer full of index cards containing molecular material.

Part of the Museum's molecular schistosomiasis collection. In building a global repository of schistosomiasis specimens and contextual data, we are providing a resource for essential research into schistosomiasis, a Neglected Tropical Disease (NTD).


Currently scientists find it difficult to search for and get access to tissue and DNA samples that have been collected and stored by researchers. The new database will bring together many of the UK's available frozen resources from rare and endangered animal species, allowing scientists quicker and easier access to them.

Prof Mike Bruford at Cardiff University is leading the creation of the CryoArks Biobank.

Mike says, 'Collections of tissue and DNA from laboratories, zoos, aquariums and museums will come together under a single structure, providing us with an unparalleled opportunity to better manage and share the vast amount of genetic material we have.

'It will allow researchers and conservationists to access material they never thought existed - including samples from wild populations and animals that are now extinct.

'CryoArks is making a step change in the way that genetic material is curated, and is making it available to more scientists.'

Three freezers that can contain liquid nitrogen vapour, preserving specimens and tissue at -180°C.

Three freezers that can contain liquid nitrogen vapour, preserving specimens and tissue at -180°C.


Genetics at the Museum

Experts at the Museum have been studying genetics for more than 30 years, and over that time scientists have collected molecular material.

A molecular collections facility opened in the South Kensington building in 2012 to house this ever-growing collection, and it can store up to two million samples.

The labs currently store whole animals as well as tissue and DNA at a range of sub-zero temperatures. The coldest specimens are kept in large tanks of liquid nitrogen vapour which remain at -180°C.

Behind every large freezer door are multiple drawers that contain a vast range of samples, from bees in test tubes and snails in ethanol to DNA extracts and blood samples.

Each ultracold freezer or tank holds up to 65,000 and 120,000 frozen samples respectively.

The aim of these freezer rooms is to try to keep a little bit of today's natural world suspended in time for future researchers.

Aidan Emery, Researcher and Culture Facility Manager, opening on of the Museum's liquid nitrogen stores (left), and a view inside one of the tanks (right).

Aidan Emery, Researcher and Culture Facility Manager, opening one of the Museum's liquid nitrogen stores (left), and a view inside one of the tanks (right).


Why freeze DNA?

Planet Earth is changing quickly. The oceans are filling with plastic, the land is warming and species go extinct every day.

When a species disappears, it takes a lot of information about its evolutionary history and adaptations to its ecosystem with it. All that information might be of use to future scientists - if only we could cling on to it.

Extracting and freezing DNA from as many threatened species as possible is providing some hope for the future. It is creating a record of what has lived on Earth, and will act as back-up copy of a species' DNA, should the worst happen.

The Museum labs are already home to important collections, including 50,000 insect specimens from a recent national initiative to study pollinators living in the UK. These are an aggregation of material from research programmes answering questions on pollinator species decline, pollinator diseases, the effect of pesticides and the effects of land management policies - all ultimately informing us about issues of human food sustainability.

All the UK pollinator specimens from this collection have been both fully databased and made discoverable and accessible globally via the Museum's Data Portal

Lab manager Jacqueline Mackenzie-Dodds says, 'Our aim is to make the Museum's genome-quality material and data more accessible and discoverable both in the UK and worldwide.

'We need to prepare for future research by storing as much information about genes as possible. Scientists are already looking to sample the next level of information after DNA – including ever-smaller and more complex parts of a cell.

'Liquid nitrogen storage at the Museum makes this possible, and we will be banking cells from endangered species too.'

CryoArks is aiming to change the way genetic material is curated, backed up and made available to the increasing number of scientists unable to access wild specimens as they become more and more threatened. 

Drawers containing molecular collection. These specimens are safe to be kept at room temperature.

Drawers containing molecular collections. These specimens are safe to be kept at room temperature.


The future is frozen

CryoArks is far bigger than simply a plan to share data that already exists. It's also about encouraging more scientists to collect and store DNA as part of both their routine studies and major projects.

Experts agree that the UK needs to hugely increase the size of its frozen collection. That means sampling living animals - often by taking small amounts of blood, skin, hair, semen or other tissues - and storing the DNA immediately.

The team will work closely with researchers and conservationists to target samples from specific threatened species and plug gaps in national facilities.

Tim Littlewood, Head of Life Sciences at the Museum, says, 'Museums of the future will need more than just biological specimens preserved as pressed plants, pinned insects, skins and skeletons, although those things are important.

'We can see the need for genomes, proteins, and digital imagery all accessible through databases and bioreposities. The UK needs to step up to tomorrow's needs urgently.

'Natural history collections provide baseline data through space and time. Strategic sampling and careful storage provides the means by which we can measure change in natural history as well as the biological responses to change. Changes in species number, biodiversity, climate and habitat leave genomic fingerprints as well as ecological change. Understanding change at the genomic level is now within our grasp.

'The current project focuses on rare and endangered species important for conservation. Only time will tell how people will apply this resource for better understanding, management and conservation. Without it, options will be even more limited.

'Part of the Museum's responsibility to future generations is continuing to collection specimens from the natural world, in a legal, ethical and appropriate way.'