Frozen rhino cells at the Frozen Zoo. Frozen rhino cells at the Frozen Zoo. Frozen rhino cells are just one of many tissue samples at the Frozen Zoo in San Diego. (Photo: San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research)

Why we really need 'frozen zoos'

The survival of certain endangered species depends on these projects.

In the film "Jurassic Park," scientists relied on luck and fate to revive the dinosaurs. But modern science is taking matters into its own hands to ensure the future existence of today's animal species.

Case in point: Ark of Life, a joint project between the Ramat Gan Safari zoo and the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW) in Germany.

Together they have created a "frozen zoo" in Israel – a tissue bank for animals that houses each species' DNA samples.

Tiger at Ramat Gan Safari is treated for ear infections.It's standard procedure for animals treated at Ramat Gan Safari such as this tiger to have tissue samples taken and then frozen. (Photo: JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

The Wildlife Hospital at the zoo treats about 4,000 animals and birds annually. The procedure now is to take a tissue sample of each and freeze it in special tubes at minus 196 degrees Celsius.

The tissues can then be used in the future – each sample can be stored for up to 3,000 years – for a variety of purposes, whether it be to reproduce species that become extinct or for organs for transplants.

While the Ark of Life's mission is a rare one, it is not entirely unique. Two other such projects exist, one in the United States and the other in Great Britain.

In England and Wales, the Frozen Ark project has collected thousands of tissue samples from animals, including the Siberian tiger and the Amur leopard, in an effort to stave off the extinction of thousands of species in the coming years.

San Diego Zoo's program's name says it all. The Frozen Zoo is the largest and most diverse collection of its kind in the world, containing more than 10,000 living cell cultures, oocytes, sperm and embryos representing nearly 1,000 taxa, including one extinct species, the po’ouli.

While its focus is on advancing genetic and reproductive technologies for population sustainability, its work has proven useful to research institutes around the world.

For example, the Scripps Research Institute is using resources provided by the Frozen Zoo to study the potential for emerging stem cell technologies to rescue the northern white rhino from the brink of extinction – with the hope that future generations won't have to rely on the magic of Hollywood to revive a species.

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