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America Is Starting a Vault of Endangered Species DNA

The ice-wolf cometh ... one day.

A Mexican wolf.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

When times are bleak, ice is seductive.

Just look at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, that frozen bunker in the middle of a mountain in Norway which is essentially our planet’s backup supply of seeds. When it opened in 2008, it came with the promise of biblical redemption. The vault, Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg told delegates, was “the Noah's Ark for securing biological diversity for future generations."

Science fiction is full of similar stories. The idea of cryonics is, by now, an old trope: to cheat death, freeze yourself so you can be revived in the future. This is easier said than done (This American Life has a great episode about this), and to date anybody who decides to put themselves on ice is A) very rich and B) banking on future scientific miracles.

And yet: Ice is seductive, especially as our world is beginning to run out of it.

Which is why, perhaps, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced it was partnering with the nonprofit Revive & Restore, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, among others, to create a “genetic library” of the country’s endangered species. As climate change and habitat loss push more and more species to the brink, Fish and Wildlife Service field staff are going to spend their time “biobanking,” or collecting the genetic material like blood, tissues, and reproductive cells from animals to cryogenically preserve and genetically sequence. The biobank will start with 24 animals in danger of disappearing — including the Mexican wolf and Sonoran Pronghorn. In the future, their genetic material could potentially be used to clone and revive their species if they go extinct.

“Biobanking gives us the chance to save irreplaceable genetic diversity,” said Seth Willey, Deputy Assistant Regional Director at the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s Southwest Region, in a statement. “If done right, it creates a marker-in-time and gives future recovery biologists options, like genetic rescue, that are only possible if we act now.”

This is the first time the Fish and Wildlife Service is embarking on a biobanking initiative, and it feels almost like a tacit acknowledgement that the circumstances for these animals will probably get worse before they get better. There are flavors of Jurassic Park here, and I’m also reminded of Colossal Biosciences, the company that continually puts out headline-grabbing announcements about wanting to resurrect extinct animals like the Woolly Mammoth or the Dodo.

But there’s an important difference worth keeping in mind, too: Colossal is trying to piece together the DNA of extinct animals from incomplete wisps that exist in the fossil record and relatives like modern-day elephants. The Fish and Wildlife Service and its collaborators are working with well-preserved, modern-day DNA. They’ve already successfully cloned one endangered animal, a black-footed ferret named Elizabeth Ann, which was cloned from cells banked in 1988.

In that sense, the genetic material the Fish and Wildlife Service is collecting is more like the seeds in Svalbard than, say, blood from a mosquito frozen in amber, or a dead billionaire hoping for a miracle: sleeping on ice, waiting for the right time to wake back up.

Neel Dhanesha profile image

Neel Dhanesha

Neel is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Prior to Heatmap, he was a science and climate reporter at Vox, an editorial fellow at Audubon magazine, and an assistant producer at Radiolab, where he helped produce The Other Latif, a series about one detainee's journey to Guantanamo Bay. He is a graduate of the Literary Reportage program at NYU, which helped him turn incoherent scribbles into readable stories, and he grew up (mostly) in Bangalore. He tweets sporadically at @neel_dhan.


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