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Cryo-Initiative

  • black-footed ferret

Scientists with the Center for Species Survival’s Genome Resource Bank at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute collect and freeze biological materials, such as gametes, embryos, tissue, blood, and DNA, from threatened species to breed, study, monitor, and ensure the genetic diversity of future animal populations.  

Across the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, departments maintain many genome resource banks for important conservation, preservation and biological research.

Collections at the National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute 

  • The Center for Species Survival's Genome Resource Bank contains more than 2,500 samples of frozen sperm or embryos from 100 species and more than 8,000 serum samples from 80 species
  • The Center for Conservation Genomics houses a frozen collection with more than 108,000 samples of animal tissues from 1,500 species
  • The Nutrition Department’s frozen milk repository is the most extensive collection of exotic animal milks in the United States, with 15,000 samples from 185 species
  • The Smithsonian Migratory Birds Center's frozen collection contains 48,000 samples from 244 species, which aids in research studies to understand migratory birds

These biobanks ultimately help more animals stay in the wild, as scientists can breed animals in captivity more efficiently and perform conservation research without taking animals from their habitats. Specifically, scientists can rescue the genome of any individual post-mortem; move genetic material inexpensively for use in breeding and genetic management; provide “insurance” against catastrophic events like tsunamis, fires, and floods; extend generational intervals, and minimize the number of animals maintained in captivity. It also allows scientists who normally have no access to wildlife or rare breeds to conduct basic and applied research.

Where We Work

  • In Namibia to preserve the last remaining Feline Immunodeficiency Virus-free population of cheetahs
  • In China to develop the giant panda sperm genome resource bank as a hedge against extinction and to support breeding programs
  • In Thailand to expand genome resource banking for Asian elephants, clouded leopards, and fishing cats

Notable Achievements

  • 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

Current Projects

  • Understanding the cryo-sensitivities of spermatozoa from canids, felids, ungulates, birds, amphibians and invertebrates
  • 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
  • Developing alternate preservation and storage methods at ambient temperatures

Training and Capacity Building

The Center for Species Survival's 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, the former Soviet Union, Myanmar, Thailand, Panama and Vietnam.