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Species on Ice

Imagine your favorite zoo animal as a child. Was it an elephant? A hippo? A rhinoceros? Let’s say it was a giraffe. Say you went to the zoo when you were 10 years old and the giraffe was your favorite animal. You loved it so much your parents took a picture of you standing in front of one with lots of spots. Say that picture turned out so nicely, your parents framed it and put in on the mantle place where it has stayed ever since. By now you’ve seen that picture so many times that you could spot that giraffe anywhere. Say now, at 20, you returned to the zoo, visited the giraffe exhibit and could swear you saw that same giraffe that has been sitting on your mantle place. It has the same number of spots and everything. But how is that possible? Wouldn’t the giraffe have aged? Couldn’t it have died? How does this giraffe look so strikingly similar?
It could hold such a resemblance because it’s a clone.
Thanks to recent breakthroughs in technological science, it is now possible to extract genetic material from animals, store the material in a freezer and then use the material years down the road to recreate the original animal. These storage freezers are known as frozen zoos and have the potential to save entire species from extinction.
Instead of lions and tigers, frozen zoos store DNA, sperm, eggs, embryos, tissue and other animal cells. Scientists collect these samples from animals at either a traditional zoo or in the wild. After collection, the cells are divided, processed and placed in laboratory vials to be frozen in liquid nitrogen, which can preserve the cells for up to 10,000 years.
To use the preserved material, scientists merely have to remove the vials from the freezer and wait for them to thaw. They can then be used for reproductive processes such as artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, embryo transfer and cloning.
However, Janice Siegford, a research assistant professor in the Department of Animal Science, isn’t sure about the benefits of such cloning. “I think cloning has some potential, but when we have done cloning of animals, we have actually created some animals that have had some inherent problems that aren’t really a result of their species, but are a result of the cloning process,” said Siegford. “So it could be difficult to distinguish what could have been natural problems for the animal versus what’s an artifact of cloning.”
[jan2]The first frozen zoo to perform cloning was the San Diego Zoo’s Center for Conservation Research. Created in 1976, the zoo is the world’s largest repository of genetic material, storing more than 7,200 animal samples from 675 species. The research center is part of the zoo’s department of Conservation and Research for Endangered Species (CRES). CRES is funded by the non-profit Zoological Society of San Diego, as well as from grants from similar organizations.
Yet the zoo is not funded to clone animals just for the sake of cloning. The San Diego frozen zoo was created with the intent of protecting diversity in endangered gene pools and to possibly revive extinct species.
With harmful environmental disturbances such as pollution, habitat loss and global warming, extinction rates have been on the rise in recent years. According to the World Conservation Union (IUCN), more than 16,000 species of animals face extinction. Many species are codependent, meaning the loss of one species could result in the loss of one or several more species. An additional 6,300 species are thought to be co-endangered.
Similarly, a change in environment can result in species loss. A climate change in the Andes Mountains has led to an increase in the prevalence of a fungus disease, which is causing rapid death among the Harlequin toad species. According to Conservatory International (CI), drier climate has been a primary factor for 67 percent of the toads’ extinction.
The increase of temperatures in cold climates, most likely due to world climate changes, is leading to habitat loss in places like Antarctica and the Arctic due to melting sea ice. In Antarctica, the loss of ice means less space for algae to grow; as a result, krill, which feed off algae, are dying off. In the Arctic, polar bears that hunt for food and raise their cubs on sea ice have to swim farther distances to search for food. Increasingly, the bears are unable to reach their intended distance and are drowning.
A frozen zoo could be used to protect these endangered species and may even be helpful in the case of threatened animals that are indigenous to Michigan, including the barn owl, red-shouldered hawk, grey wolf and Indiana bat.
Rachel Murray, a 2007 psychology and environmental science and policy graduate, doesn’t think re-creation is the answer to Michigan’s extinction problems. “I don’t like the idea,” said Murray. “It’s all coming from the same individual, not the species; you’re just re-creating the same thing.”
Siegford said while some animal extinction may be due to human error, it is not necessarily up to us to reintroduce the species. “Some of the extinction events that have happed have been the result of human manipulation of the environment or of hunting pressure,” she Murray. “But I’m not sure that bringing them back at this point would be a good answer.”
Psychology freshman Karlie Forgaes agreed, “I think they’re mostly human-caused problems. Obviously pollution is, and I think a lot of global warming has to do with what people put into the air. So I guess if people didn’t change, it wouldn’t make a difference to bring back the animals.”
Debbie Sontag, another 2007 graduate and current teaching intern, also agreed “There’s just too many sides too consider: biologically, scientifically and ethically,” she said.
The ethical issues that surround the practice of cloning prove to be a point of contention as well. “It would be okay as long as they’re not just mixing animals, doing experiments or testing on them or anything,” said Forgaes.
Siegford also said bringing back a species would only make sense if an entire ecosystem were dependent on its existence. “It would depend on the animals that we’re talking about and whether the system is still relatively intact as a whole,” she said. “So if you’ve got a system and just one species happened to be sensitive, maybe it would be workable. But if you had to bring back lots of species to restore the natural collection of species within a system, then I don’t see it as being as possible.”
Much of an ecosystem’s survival depends on its physical environment. And while scientists have crowed about the benefits of saving animals that have suffered from habitat loss, Murray said the habitat is irreplaceable. “They can’t save the animal unless they save the habitat. It’s pointless,” she said.
[murray23]Sontag agreed. “Besides, you have the fact that you’re not getting the animal in its natural environment – you’re reproducing and studying it in a medical facility,” she said.
Siegford said that while the habitat is essential, in dire circumstances such genetic recreation could be useful. “I guess if we do have things preserved and we end up with a situation in a critical environment and we have to stabilize and recreate the environment, then we have the potential to reintroduce and get positive results,” she said.
The ability to clone animals, and the legitimacy of using frozen DNA and other reproductive necessities, will certainly continue to be debated as frozen zoos gain momentum. Although using frozen zoos to lengthen the existence of endangered species is an idea with good intentions, is it possible that more harm than good could result by increasing the presence an endangered species in the animal population? In current conditions, would the cloned animals be able to survive? Even as the questions swirl about frozen zoos, if your favorite giraffe from the past ever lands on the endangered species list, science is shifting toward the possibility of making more.

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