National biobank will connect researchers with zoological collections

Eleanor Mills, 30.05.2018
Museums to play a central role in UK’s first national biobank
The UK’s first national zoological biobank will be created as a result of a recent £1m grant from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council’s (BBSRC) Bioinformatics and Biological Resources Fund.

The project, titled the CryoArks Biobank, is a collaboration between two scientific institutions, the Frozen Ark Project and the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), as well as London’s Natural History Museum, National Museums Scotland, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, Edinburgh Zoo, the University of Nottingham and the University of Edinburgh.

The initiative will expand and link collections around the UK, providing the infrastructure and expertise to take animal biobanks to a new level of access, organisation and species coverage.

Starting in July 2018, CryoArks Biobank will provide cryopreservation infrastructure, databasing, a sampling initiative and public outreach in a coordinated effort to gather and curate genetic material for conservation and research. The cultural institutions’ presence in the initiative is essential to its success.

Currently, if a scientist funded by the BBSRC wishes to find a sample of a particular animal species, subspecies, breed or population for DNA sequencing, they have no place to search except for a few museum collections, some of which are not located in the UK.

The CryoArks Biobank’s collection of zoological tissue will provide a central hub for researchers across the UK, giving them access to cells and DNA from endangered species and other wildlife, which can be used in their research and for conservation planning.

The genetic material held in biobanks can teach us about our own history, examine why certain species have unusual characteristics - such as why the naked mole-rat rarely gets cancer - and help with medical advancements. The new biobank will help organise, centralise and properly resource access to animal biological specimens for the UK research community.
The initiative is being led by Mike Bruford, the professor of organisms and environment division, School of Biosciences at Cardiff University. Bruford said: “The CryoArks Biobank marks a huge leap forward in zoological biobanking in the UK. With the world facing unprecedented challenges for our wildlife and climate change, having access to this data will help us find solutions to protect our planet and its endangered species.

“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.

"The scheme 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.”

Tim Littlewood, the head of life sciences at the Natural History Museum, London, said: “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. 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.”