This ‘Frozen Zoo’ Could Bring Extinct Animals Back To Life
Just call it Noah’s icy second ark.
At a zoo just outside San Diego, elephants, whales, cheetahs and iguanas all hang out in the same room—or in the same tank, to be specific. An unassuming refrigerator-sized container is home to the cells of more than 1,200 species and subspecies.
Cells from animals around the world arrive at the Frozen Zoo every day. These cells are grown, split into two vials and preserved in steel vacuum-sealed tanks that are chilled with liquid nitrogen. Each specimen is divided into eight vials, half stay in San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research and the other half is sent to an undisclosed second location for safekeeping.
Many of the 1,200 animal species at the Frozen Zoo are still living and prospering on earth. Others are endangered and one — the po‘ouli, a stout Hawaiian bird — is extinct. Because of the vast diversity of samples, the Frozen Zoo serves as a catalogue to record the biodiversity on earth today. But Dr. Oliver Ryder, director of genetics at the zoo, is quick to point out it’s also readily used as a research tool.
The institute itself works to rescue endangered animals by studying and supporting biological breeding factors, identifying and fighting disease and conserving and restoring natural habitats. And samples are constantly sent to investigators at other locations to further scientific research on wildlife conservation efforts worldwide.
But the Frozen Zoo is constantly faced with the same question: Can they use these cells to bring animals back to life?
The short answer is yes. The technology exists (and has been used) to take the still-living cells of a dead animal, put them in sperm or eggs, fertilize them and adapt a surrogate host to ‘give birth.’ It’s long been the stuff of science fiction, but it’s here. I REPEAT: WE CAN BRING ANIMALS BACK TO LIFE.
Ryder and other scientists like him prefer not to sensationalize the technology, and avoid ‘Jurassic Park’-esque connections. Instead, they choose to focus on the immense benefit this technology could have long after we’re gone.
It’s estimated that 99 percent of the 5 billion species that once lived on earth have since gone extinct. And as new species are added to the endangered categories daily, there is less time than ever to combat this loss. But as the biggest critics of the Frozen Zoo say it’s “basically re-arranging the deck chairs on the ‘Titanic’” if the environment these nearly extinct animals are re-born into hasn’t also been re-born.
Thanks to climate change, deforestation and drilling, bringing back one animal surely won’t re-populate a species with no home. And while the work of the Frozen Zoo is undoubtedly valuable to the conservation efforts crucial to preserving the earth’s precious biodiversity, it’s long past time to take a stand and ensure this invaluable ark can serve its purpose when it makes landfall after this generation’s storm of human destruction.