A Zoo for Endangered Species

By Dave Longtin and Duane Kraemer
Copyright 1998 Dow Jones & Co., Inc.
Wall Street Journal (May 25, 1998)

A bill designed to overhaul the Endangered Species Act is expected to come to a vote in the Senate before the July 4 recess. The measure would ease some of the demands on property owners whose land houses endangered species. But regardless of the bill's fate, hundreds of endangered species native to America, such as the grizzly bear, the red wolf and the California condor, will remain severely threatened. Habitat preservation alone won't be enough, because in many cases, animal populations are already too small and fragmented to avoid inbreeding, which reduces their vigor and fertility. Genome banks can help renew genetic diversity in these animal groups by storing their sperm, embryos and tissues for later use.

There are at least six "frozen zoos" for endangered species in the U.S.: at the Smithsonian Institution, the San Diego Zoo, the St. Louis Zoo, the Cincinnati Zoo, the Audubon Center in New Orleans and the Omaha Zoo. They have already produced one tentative success: Scientists have collected enough sperm samples from Wyoming's black-footed ferrets to ensure the genetic health of these animals for years to come. They have also stored smaller quantities of sperm from other endangered species such as giant pandas, chimpanzees and cheetahs.

Embryo transfer is another technique that has already been performed on endangered species such as wild cattle, zebras and rhesus monkeys. In this procedure, scientists can create test-tube embryos from the eggs and sperm of genetically healthy animals. Then they use these embryos to impregnate females that are either inbred or otherwise genetically less valuable.

If scientists had embryos in cold storage and closely related types of animals to act as surrogate mothers, it might even be possible to bring an entire species back from extinction. Such a resurrection would not be easy, because embryo transfers usually work far better when the animals involved belong to the same species. But this technology could become a powerful conservation tool and a great ecological insurance policy.

Genome banks also protect wildlife populations in other ways. When an outbreak of canine distemper recently threatened the lions in Tanzania's Serengeti national park, stockpiled blood samples greatly helped biologists in studying the disease. Frozen cell cultures also permitted scientists to determine how much genetic diversity remained in the humpback whale population, which has been hunted by humans for two centuries. Still, such programs remain rare, because they are all shoestring operations funded mainly by private donations.

According to JoGayle Howard, a reproductive physiologist at the National Zoo in Washington, the federal government spends only about $50,000 a year on technologies related to genome banking of endangered animals. In contrast, the National Institute of Health devotes more than $2 million annually to store the sperm, embryos and other tissues of laboratory rodents. Many environmentalist groups vehemently oppose genome banking because they think that it might make people lose interest in habitat preservation. But that's like arguing that ocean liners shouldn't carry lifeboats because it might make captains less careful. Genome banking is a safety net, not a substitute for traditional conservation measures.

The emerging biotechnologies are crucial to reaching an accommodation with nature. Using frozen zoos to preserve species won't be easy or cheap. Just retrieving enough genetic material from any given species could cost $1 million. If that sounds too expensive, consider that our state and national parks draw up to 800 million visitors a year, in part because of the rare creatures they contain. And then there are all the costs that property owners complain are imposed on them by the Endangered Species Act.

No change to the Endangered Species Act is likely to do much good for animals on the brink of extinction. Laws simply can't prevent them from inbreeding. But if Congress were to devote just $3 million a year specifically for genome banking, it would have an enormous effect. Scientists would be able to collect sperm and tissues from dozens of native American species over the next decade, literally freezing these resources in place for the future. Greater government involvement in genome banking would also raise the public profile of these efforts. Private foundations, which now contribute a few tens of thousands of dollars annually to these activities, would be encouraged to give even more.

Mr. Longtin is a Washington-based writer. Mr. Kraemer is a senior professor of reproductive physiology at Texas A&M University and heads Project Noah's Ark, a nonprofit group promoting frozen zoos.

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