ADVERTISEMENT
latest stories:

Endangered Species Get Iced in Museum DNA Repository

Genetic information from species on National Park Service land that are threatened with extinction will now be frozen and stored for future research at the American Museum of Natural History



KATHERINE HARMON

More In This Article

Deep below the dinosaur displays, a laboratory in the basement of a 19th-century building at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City houses the institute's newest collection: eight large, liquid nitrogen–cooled cryogenic vats. Called the Ambrose Monell Collection for Molecular and Microbial Research, the lab is home to thousands of frozen microscopic genetic samples. And the collection is about to receive some important new—and rare—specimens.

Yesterday, representatives from the National Park Service, which manages land on which many of the U.S.'s nearly 400 endangered vertebrate species live, visited the lab to sign an agreement with the museum to allow for storage of DNA samples from these species in the chilly facilities.

[View Slide Show: Endangered Species Get Iced in Museum DNA Repository]

"These resources are really what's necessary for the kinds of biological studies to better understand the diversity of life on the planet," said George Amato, director of the museum's Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics, at the signing.

But the new partners don't have any Jurassic Park–style intention to reanimate lost lineages. The hope is to use these genetic samples—kept at –256 degrees Fahrenheit (–160 degrees Celsius) by vapor boiling off from liquid nitrogen—to create a baseline to find how species and populations are changing and adapting—or not—to environmental changes. But, Amato noted, "it's hard to predict all of the values of this into the future."

Since the lab opened in 2001 the AMNH has been accepting donated samples (often extracted from blood, bone or muscle tissue) from graduate students and other researchers. Along with curation, the museum also makes small samples available for study free of cost. "A lot of people are very happy to have us take them off their hands," said Julie Feinstein, who manages the collection, which has a total capacity of about a million samples.

"What the museum offers to the Park Service is something that we cannot do for ourselves," said Ann Hitchcock, registrar at the National Park Service, which doesn't have any cryogenic facilities of its own and depends on researchers who store samples offsite at a university or laboratory.

The new agreement also allows for more uniform sample collection—the AMNH will provide special kits and shipping materials to researchers on national park land. It will guarantee a more stable storage process than that which could be achieved at smaller facilities, as well—promising that even with no power, samples will stay chilled for five weeks.

"This has been absolutely fantastic," said Bert Frost, National Park Service associate director of natural resource stewardship and science, about the agreement. He cited the endangered island fox found in Channel Islands National Park off the southern California coast, whose DNA (from blood samples) will likely be one of the first additions to the collection. The fox had been involved in a captive breeding program to restore its numbers.

"If we would have lost that animal, we would have lost all that genetic information," Frost said. "Now a facility like this, if some catastrophic thing happened, and we happen to lose an animal or a species, at least we have some genetic material" to study.

Rights & Permissions
Share this Article:

Comments

You must sign in or register as a ScientificAmerican.com member to submit a comment.
Scientific American Holiday Sale

Limited Time Only!

Get 50% off Digital Gifts

Hurry sale ends 12/31 >

X

Email this Article

X