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Dr Oliver Ryder
Future generations would want us to do this
 real 28k

Dr Paul Toyne, WWF
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Thursday, 13 April, 2000, 17:58 GMT 18:58 UK
DNA banks urged to save species
Rhino BBC
The black rhino has already benefited
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby

An international group of scientists is proposing the setting up of a worldwide network of DNA banks to preserve the genetic material of endangered species.

It is estimated that hundreds of animals become extinct every week and the researchers believe the information in these special banks could help conserve many other creatures currently on the brink of disappearing.

They urge "a co-ordinated, worldwide attempt to store, for every endangered animal species, samples of DNA, or frozen cells or tissues that could readily yield DNA".

Otherwise, the researchers argue, "our descendants will be left with little else than brief descriptions in scientific papers and specimens in museums".

Genetic studies

Dr Oliver Ryder, from the Zoological Society of San Diego, US, is one of the scientists behind the plan outlined in the journal Science.

"This broad resource would allow us to use the powerful tools of genetic analysis that are available now and in the future to avoid extinctions," he told the BBC.

Genetic studies can help us understand the health and medicine of endangered species. They can tell us about evolution, population movements, and vulnerability to inbreeding and disease.

The lessons learned in one species can be applied to others - even humans.

All this information could be vital in bringing a particular species back from the brink - and beyond, if cloning technologies prove useful.

Future genomes

"In the foreseeable future, DNA sequencing will be fully automated, and our descendants will be able rapidly to derive the sequence of any organism whose DNA has been appropriately collected and stockpiled," Dr Ryder, and colleagues, write in Science.

"If sufficient genomes are available, they will be able to reconstruct not only what the organism was like, but also what its evolutionary relationships were, how specific genes arose to encode proteins that perform specialised functions, and how regulatory programming evolved."

Species that have benefited already from assessment of genetic resources include the Florida panther, the black rhino, the panda, the California condor, and several cetaceans.

The scientists say the technical aspects of saving DNA are straightforward. "Any tissue samples can be simply stored at -70 degrees Celsius or in liquid nitrogen.

"DNA can be isolated from fresh or frozen tissue samples, and purified DNA may be preserved for hundreds to thousands of years at room temperature, provided it is kept dry, for example in a closed vial of inert gas."

Conservation in the wild

They estimate that their scheme would need to provide for the preservation of DNA from at least 5,200 recognised species.

The scientists propose a web-based register of DNA banks to collect the information already available, and to encourage more work on the project.

Some conservationists have given the idea cautious support. Dr Paul Toyne from the World Wide Fund for Nature says the suggestion is interesting and may have a part to play. But he says there is no substitute for conservation in the field.

Habitats have to be protected, he argues, otherwise there will be nowhere for the animals to live.

"We hear a lot about scientists creating test tube babies for tigers and the like, but what is the aim?

"If we don't conserve the natural complement of plants and animals that can be found in the wild, these test tube tigers will never be returned to the wild. They will just exist for our amusement in zoos and parks."

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