UK Researchers Form First National Biobank

The UK’s National History Museum announced a new initiative to collect and preserve the DNA of thousands of animals at a biobank called CryoArks. The collection of zoological tissue will provide a central hub for researchers across the UK, according to the museum, providing access to cells and DNA from endangered species and other wildlife that can be used in both research and conservation planning.

“Museums of the future will need more than just biological specimens preserved as pressed plants, pinned insects, skins and skeletons—although those things are important,” says Tim Littlewood, head of life sciences at the Natural History Museum. “Natural history collections are essential for providing baseline data against which change can be measured. Strategic sampling and careful storage allows us to measure shifts in key data such as species number and biodiversity and also chart biological adaptations to climate and habitat change. Understanding change at the genomic level is now within our grasp and this initiative will prove invaluable in helping us learn how to protect the natural world.”

The UK’s Natural History Museum, National Museums Scotland, Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, Edinburgh Zoo, University of Nottingham and University of Edinburgh will all contribute to the biobank, expanding and linking collections around the UK, including the Frozen Ark and EAZA (European Association of Zoos and Aquaria) biobanks.

The labs currently store whole animals as well as tissue and DNA at a range of sub-zero temperatures. The coldest specimens are kept in large tanks of liquid nitrogen vapor that remain at -180°C.

CryoArks will begin operation in July 2018 under a £1-million grant from the UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, providing cryopreservation infrastructure, databasing and a sampling initiative.

“Collections of tissue and DNA from laboratories, zoos, aquariums and museums will come together under a single structure, providing us with an unparalleled opportunity to better manage and share the vast amount of genetic material we have, says Mike Bruford, a professor at Cardiff University and head of the CryoArk project. “It will allow researchers and conservationists to access material they never thought existed – including samples from wild populations and animals that are now extinct. CryoArks is making a step-change in the way that genetic material is curated, and is making it available to more scientists.”