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How Gene Banks Work

Saving Animal Genes
A researcher cryogenically stores panda semen at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.
A researcher cryogenically stores panda semen at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.
Liu Jin/AFP/Getty Images

While seed banks typically prioritize widely grown crop plants, scientists looking to stockpile animal genes focus in a different direction: species on the verge of extinction. If this sounds like a relatively small undertaking, consider that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service currently lists more than 900 species as endangered. If current trends continue, scientists predict more than 1,000 species of mammals will face extinction in the next 30 years [source: The Frozen Ark Project].

Several programs are working to preserve the genes of endangered animals. China's Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding keeps eggs, sperm and other tissue samples from pandas and other natives species preserved in cold storage. The United Kingdom's Frozen Ark Project has taken on the mission of creating a network of similar gene banks around the world devoted to endangered animals.

Scientists in India have taken the idea a step farther by working to eventually reintroduce the Indian cheetah back in to the wild, more than half a century after it was declared extinct. While the researchers lack cryogenically preserved tissue, they have been able to collect skin and bone tissues from museums and zoos. They hope to fill in the genetic blanks by studying the genes of similar cheetah populations in modern-day Iran.

However, scientists haven't completely overlooked domestic animals. Some gene banks have set out to document and store DNA from major livestock breeds. The United Kingdom's Department of Agriculture and Rural Development founded a semen archive to safeguard the genetic profiles of rams in Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

To preserve genetic information for animals, scientists must cryogenically freeze diverse specimens of sperm, eggs, hair, skin and blood from target species to provide the best chance for future cloning. To achieve this, scientists would use a female from a related species as a surrogate mother. They'd take one of the surrogate's eggs and fuse it with a cell from the animal to be cloned. The mother would, in effect, give birth to another species -- making her a biologic mother, but not a genetic one. For more information about this process, read ­­How Cloning Works.

Would this process work? Scientists have already proven that it can. On Jan. 8, 2001, U.S. scientists announced the birth of a baby gaur, a large endangered ox native to India and Asia. The gaur's mother, however, was a common cow.

The widespread use of this technique to repopulate the planet with extinct and endangered animals is still years away. In the short term, such gene banks allow scientists to study endangered species and learn how best to sustain them in the future.

But what about the species responsible for so many of these near-extinctions? It should come as no surprise that scientists are preserving human genetic materials as well. Sperm banks in which doctors freeze semen for use in artificial insemination serve as a prime example.

Other gene banks, such as Iceland's deCODE project, store human genetic material for medical research. China is currently working to collect and store the genetic data from residents in the city of Taizhau. The researchers have already gathered samples from 10,000 individuals and hope to collect a total of 5 million [source: BBC News].

Steadily, humans are loading their frozen arks. We've hidden them in Norway's icy mountains, buried them in subterranean vaults -- there's even talk of sending gene banks to the moon. Will we one day need these genetic reservoirs to rebuild a planet laid waste by natural or man-made disaster?

­Hopefully, we'll never have to find out. Explore the links on the next page to learn more abo­ut the genetic marvels behind life.