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Genome Resource Banking for Global Conservation

Meeting the Challenge of Preserving Endangered Species

The National Zoo maintains a valuable living repository of specimens from rare and endangered species in the Genome Resource Bank to support efforts in biodiversity and species conservation.

What is a Genome Resource Bank?

A Genome Resource Bank (GRB) is a frozen repository of biological materials, including sperm and embryos, tissue, blood products and DNA. Scientists in the Department of Reproductive Sciences at the National Zoo and its Conservation and Research Center lead the conservation community as an advocate for GRBs for protecting and preserving biodiversity, not as a replacement for preserving habitat but as a helpful conservation tool. We also develop new cryopreservation technologies that have value in understanding endangered species biology (for fish to elephants) and are useful in breeding and genetic management.

Why Is a Genome Resource Bank Important?

  • Inexpensive movement of genetic material without removing animals from the wild
  • Serve as an insurance
  • Extend the generation interval
  • Increase the efficiency of captive breeding
  • Minimizing the number of animals maintained in captivity
  • Serve as a source for blood, tissue and DNA for analyzing genetic diversity, paternity and disease exposure, etc.

GRB at the National Zoo

The GRB at the National Zoo contains more than 1,600 samples of frozen sperm or embryos from 70 species (1.7 percent of all mammalian species worldwide) and more than 8,000 serum samples from 80 species. These materials are a resource for scientific study. But, unlike archived items from other parts of the Smithsonian, our materials are living and have value for "insuring" the genes of valuable, one-of-a-kind species. This material has practical use for propagating endangered species and for assessing health and cause of diseases.

Milestones Achieved in Conjunction with a GRB for Endangered Species

  • Producing cheetah cubs by artificial insemination with frozen sperm (imported from Africa).
  • Enhancing black-footed ferret reproduction for re-introduction by producing multiple offspring with cryopreserved sperm.
  • Assisting in genetic management of Eld's deer and scimitar-horned oryx using cryopreserved sperm.

Developing GRBs in Range Countries

  • A cheetah sperm GRB is being implemented with a NGO partner in Namibia, to preserve the last remaining Feline Immunodeficiency Virus-free population of cheetahs.
  • The giant panda is another marquee species with a sperm GRB being developed with Chinese partners as a hedge against extinction and to support breeding programs.
  • Efforts are underway to develop a GRB for Asian elephants, clouded leopards, and fishing cats in Thailand.

Role of Basic Research in a GRB

Developing reliable methods for cryopreserving biological materials requires a thorough understanding of their cryobiological properties.

Current Projects

  • Understanding the cryo-sensitivities of spermatozoa from the cheetah, jaguar, clouded leopard, and fishing cat.
  • Understanding the cryobiological properties of oocytes from a host of mammalian species.
  • Developing methods for successful cryopreservation of testicular and ovarian tissues.
  • Testing the biological competence of cryopreserved gametes (sperm and oocytes) and tissues in various model systems.

Training and Capacity Building

The Department of Reproductive Sciences offers a hands-on training course on fertility assessment, collection of biological materials and preservation of gametes, embryos, blood products, tissue and DNA. The course is geared to graduate students, veterinarians, zoo professionals, and wildlife managers with an interest in reproductive physiology and conservation biology. To date, this course has been conducted in various countries such as South Africa, China, India, Brazil, former Soviet Union, Myanmar, Thailand, Panama, and Vietnam.