Wed, Jul 28, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Modern Noah's ark sets sail -- in London freezer

ENDANGERED SPECIES The first passengers were put in the deep freeze as part of a project to collect the DNA of thousands of creatures to save them from being wiped out


A modern version of Noah's Ark, designed to save thousands of creatures from extinction, was launched on Monday by scientists at London's Natural History Museum.

The extraordinary project was set up to protect a vast array of animals, not from epic floods, but from the threat of imminent extinction thanks to humankind's actions. Thousands of species are expected to be wiped out within the next few decades because of pollution, war and the destruction of natural habitats.

Rather than being offered refuge on a giant wooden boat, the threatened species face a more prosaic salvation at the bottom of a deep-freeze unit in one of the museum's laboratories in west London. While entire colonies of some creatures will be frozen, in most cases only DNA and tissue samples of endangered species will be stored.

Scientists behind the project, dubbed the Frozen Ark, are keen to preserve the DNA of endangered animals so they can continue research into their evolutionary histories even if they become extinct. More ambitiously, scientists hope one day to be able to use cells from the frozen tissue samples to recreate extinct animals using advanced cloning techniques.

"Because of man's actions, species are going extinct at an alarming rate. We're losing them now at a rate that's as serious as the great extinctions," said Philip Rainbow, of the Natural History Museum.

"The ultimate desire is that if we keep tissue samples, we can one day implant these into surrogate parents and get them back. It may sound fanciful, but it'd be a great pity if in 40 years' time scientists are saying, 'look what we can do now, why didn't you keep tissue samples of these animals?"' he said.

In the ark

* The scimitar-horned oryx: overhunting, desertification and continuing wars in northern Africa have all contributed to its demise. Declared extinct in the wild last year, it exists now only in specialized breeding programs in captivity.

* The Socorro dove: has been in terminal decline since 1957 due to habitat loss in Mexico . Now being bred in captivity and plans are in place to reintroduce them to the wild if their habitat can be made safe.

* The yellow seahorse: endangered thanks to its appeal to aquarium owners and its use in Chinese medicine, the seahorse is now being bred in captivity in the hope of restoring its numbers in the wild.

On Monday, DNA samples from the scimitar-horned oryx, which was declared extinct in the wild last year, became the first to be deposited, along with samples from the Socorro dove, a coral fish called the banggai cardinal, the yellow seahorse and the mountain chicken, which is actually a variety of Caribbean frog.

Other species will follow shortly, including the Polynesian tree snail, the Fregate island beetle, which is considered critically endangered, and the British field cricket, of which fewer than 100 remain in the wild. In the next 30 years, scientists predict some 1,130 species of mammals and 1,183 species of birds will die out.

Not all the samples will be stored at the Natural History Museum. Part of the project will involve the creation of a database that holds worldwide information on DNA and tissue samples. As an insurance against damage or loss of the frozen samples, duplicates will be kept in chosen institutions around the world.

According to Rainbow, the Frozen Ark is possibly the best chance of being able to ensure that even if certain species are wiped out in the coming decades, they may not be lost for ever.

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