As the world becomes more industrialized, the earth and its various inhabitants are increasingly faced with glaring, foreboding threats. One such issue is extinction. Today, the survival of many critically endangered species, such as the northern white rhinoceros, may be dependent on a collection of glass vials, which comprise an expansive gene bank, known as The Frozen Zoo.
The vials contain actual cells of endangered animals. Whenever one such organism dies at the San Diego Zoo, researchers make sure to remove a sample of DNA – maybe sperm or portion of its eyeball – to freeze in liquid nitrogen. Over 40 years, the collection has grown to contain genetic material from over 10,000 individual animals that comprise more than 1,000 species and subspecies.
Scientists hope that the vials may someday be used to resurrect extinct animals. A renewed interest in the project was ignited in light of the recent death of 42-year-old Angalifu, San Diego Safari Park’s northern white rhino who passed away in December due to cancer. This now leaves only five remaining in the world, all of which are unable to reproduce, according to The National Post.
If all goes according to plan, scientists may be able to produce another rhino within a decade. At the moment, however, critics are raising concerns about the feasibility of the project, questioning whether or not it is worth investing so much time and money on a species that are “down to so few.”
Paul Ehrlich, a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University, also notes that the world needs to first focus on the root cause of the problem – factors such as climate change and poaching.
“Screwing around with science to save a white rhino might be fun and I would like to see it preserved and am all for biodiversity, but it’s so far down the list of things we should be doing first,” he said.
Another concern is the long-term viability of the experiment.
“We can do all kinds of razzle dazzle things but it’s one thing to make another animal or two or three, but it’s quite another to make a sustainable population from a genetic standpoint,” said George Seidel, a Colorado State University professor.
But Barbara Durrant, the director of reproductive physiology at The San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, is confident of the possibility.
“There have been other species that have come back from numbers that small so we think there is good reason we can do this with the northern white rhino,” she said.
In the past, sperm from the Frozen Zoo has been used successfully in cloning processes and for artificial insemination to reproduce organisms around the world, such as the giant panda. In general, zoos are increasingly focusing on conversation in order to preserve wildlife species for future generations to enjoy and witness while traveling.