To understand the Smithsonian's latest preservation effort, forget stuffed lions and dinosaur bones. Instead, imagine gleaming white laboratories filled with massive steel tanks, each containing thousands of pill-sized vials bathed in liquid nitrogen. Within each of those vials is a frozen tissue sample, embryo, or seed collected from a living organism somewhere in the world: Here lies the genetic material of East African birds, South Asian frogs, Caribbean reef fish.
"We're rebooting museums for 21st century science," said Jonathan Coddington, the incoming director of the Global Genome Initiative. That's the Smithsonian Institution's new effort to cryopreserve organisms from at least 80,000 genera across the tree of life, so they can be studied using DNA-based technologies.
To make it happen, the Smithsonian is mobilizing an army—comprised of 28 partner institutions across 14 countries and hundreds of scientists—to join in the largest scientific collection operation ever organized.
Set into motion in 2010, the Global Genome Initiative has been quietly building partnerships and infrastructure over the last four years. An official public launch is scheduled for early 2015.
The golden age of genetic research is already well underway. While it took scientists ten years and nearly three billion dollars to complete the first sequence of the human genome in the 90s, an organism's complete genetic blueprint can now be decoded in a matter of days for mere thousands of dollars. But there's a strong whiff of anthropocentrism in the list of sequenced genomes—especially if you consider the eight million or so species of plants and animals on Earth.
"Most of the species we have complete genomes for have medical or economic importance to humans," Coddington told me. "But from a biodiversity perspective, our approach to genomic science has been haphazard, almost boutique."
This is where the Global Genome Initiative comes in. "We do not currently understand even basic patterns in the tree of life—which species are related to which. With a strategic approach to biodiversity genomics, we'll deepen our understanding of life's evolutionary relationships, at a time when we're in danger of losing so many of them," Coddington said.
the biological world is filled with wondrous technology, and genomics will be key in understanding and using it
As an early and relatively cheap payoff, decoding the genomes of life on Earth will allow scientists to rapidly identify organisms. It may also allow us to pinpoint and better understand the traits that we envy.
"Sharks, as a rule, don't get cancer, a species of jellyfish is effectively immortal, vultures can eat revoltingly rotted food with no ill effects—the biological world is filled with wondrous technology, and genomics will be key in understanding and using it," Coddington tells me.
The Smithsonian will share resources with a growing network of biorepositories—cryo-banks capable of housing vast frozen tissue collections—that includes the National Museums of Denmark, Hungary and Australia, and China's National Genebank. The Global Genome Initiative will serve as a clearinghouse, allowing scientists who want to study a particular organism to obtain samples from any biorepository in the network.
As a first step over the next six years, the Global Genome Initiative aims to cryopreserve tissue samples representing each of Earth's 10,000 families of life. Smithsonian scientists are now trekking across the world, from Caribbean reefs to South Asian rainforests, collecting samples and shipping them on ice to the Smithsonian's biorepository in suburban Maryland, which now houses upwards of 200,000 specimens.
A collection effort of this magnitude is not without critics. In a letter to Science magazine this past May, Arizona State University biologist Ben Minteer challenged the practice of gathering live organisms for museum collections, citing cases in which museum collectors might have gotten a bit overzealous and actually driven their prize organisms extinct.
"The desire to collect voucher specimens can be heightened by recognition of the organism's rarity," Minteer wrote. "This practice can magnify extinction risk for small and isolated populations."
The letter was met with rebuttal from others in the scientific community, who claim Minteer's argument is premised on "isolated examples," and moreover, that none of the cited extinctions can be conclusively attributed to scientific collections.
True conservation involves biological manipulation and management for a changing world
"Modern collecting adheres to strict permitting regulations and ethics guidelines, including the general practice of collecting a number of specimens substantially below levels that would affect population demography," read a response letter drafted by dozens of scientists.
The response goes on to explain how collecting live specimens can aid in species conservation, by providing detailed biological information needed to place organisms on the IUCN's Red List.
While it's malarkey to suggest most specimens are collected purely for conservation, the fact remains that biological collections are often used in unexpected ways. So, basic research aside, what can we imagine using the Global Genome Initiative's cryo-banks for?
For starters, preventing or reversing the sixth mass extinction. During our 200,000 years on the planet, we've driven upwards of 1,000 species extinct. Before the dawn of civilization even, our ancestors participated in the wholesale slaughter of Earth's megafauna—woolly mammoths, giant kangaroos, and giant sloths, to name a few.
"In the event of a species' extinction, cryopreserved cells are the vital lifeline to revive an organism," Ben Novak told me. Novak is a paleogeneticist at Revive and Restore, a nonprofit, which, in recent years, has become a leader in movement to resurrect lost species.
A notion that has skirted the boundary of reality and science fiction for decades, so-called de-extinction is starting to appear within reach. Legitimate scientific efforts are underway to resurrect the passenger pigeon and the wooly mammoth. Unfortunately, for species that went extinct long ago, we simply don't have the cryopreserved cells needed for cloning. Scientists must first reconstruct the extinct organism's genome from fragments of deteriorated tissue. This is about as difficult as it sounds.
"These things are incredibly challenging, sometimes impossible, to do with non-cryopreserved remains such as taxidermy and fossils," Novak tells me.
While fraught with challenges, efforts to revive long-extinct species are no gimmick. They offer a neutral ground for optimizing the methods we might use to restore larger swaths of Earth's biodiversity in the future. (Actually restoring mega-predators to the North American prairie, now that's another can of worms).
"The insights gained from researching extinct species will allow us to use the resources of the Global Genome Initiative to the fullest extent possible," Novak said. "The success of de-extinction paves the way for new ways to save endangered species."
Species resurrection aside, cryo-banking Earth's biodiversity is undeniably a good thing for conservation. The diversity buried within genomes is key to any species' ability to weather new challenges, and it's the first thing lost when a population dwindles in size.
"In the future, cryopreserved cells may offer scientists a repository of lost genetic information," Novak explained.
And by re-introducing lost genes, we may be able to fortify small populations against the murky forecasts of the Anthropocene. Armed with 20-year-old frozen sperm samples, scientists are now pilot-testing "genetic rescue" techniques on the black-footed ferret, a species recently brought back from the brink—there were just eighteen remaining individuals.
The tools of synthetic biology may be nascent, but establishment of the Global Genome Initiative represents a paradigm shift: Conservation isn't just about preserving the living anymore. (And good timing—old school conservation doesn't appear to be working out so well). It's about archiving the blueprints of life for generations to come.
"True conservation involves biological manipulation and management for a changing world," said Novak. "It rides on the success of programs such as the Global Genome Initiative, and, more importantly, on how we use such resources."
So, come what may in the next century or so, there's solace to be found in the idea of these mammoth, sterile laboratories, scattered across the world, quietly safeguarding our planet's heritage for the future.