NOTTINGHAM • A British-led project called "Frozen Ark" is preserving the DNA of endangered species before they disappear as the Earth undergoes what scientists are calling the sixth mass extinction.
"Many of these species are going to go extinct before we even know they exist," said Professor John Armour of Human Genetics at the University of Nottingham, which is host to the project.
"The whole idea of the Frozen Ark is to get and preserve that material for future generations before it's too late."
Launched about a decade ago by British scientists Bryan Clarke, who died last year, and his wife Ann, the Frozen Ark now has 22 partners worldwide. A total of 48,000 samples belonging to some 5,500 species have been collected.
In Nottingham, some of the 705 samples are kept at room temperature while others are in a freezer .
Many conservationists see the project as defeatist, said Professor Ed Louis, a Frozen Ark trustee.
"Their attitude is that we should be putting every effort into saving the endangered species. The fact is that it's impractical and impossible," Prof Louis explained. "We're not there to replace the efforts to save, it's a backup."
It was the extinction in the wild of a small snail unique to Tahiti, the Partula, destroyed by the introduction of a carnivorous snail, that inspired Professor Clarke to begin the modern-day Noah's Ark.
By collecting Partula snails in his laboratory and sending them to zoos, Prof Clarke was able to preserve some of the species. A re-introduction is now being tested.
But what is the use of stored DNA and cells? "We are in an age where antibiotics are soon not going to work," explained Prof Louis. "Amphibian skin is covered with small molecules that kill off bacteria. A solution to an age where antibiotics no longer work could come from altering the molecules that come from that."
Prof Armour added that the most "extreme positive use" would be the ability to "recreate the organism from its genetic information".