Science is at it again. Is there anything that the men and women who don the white lab coat every day will not attempt? Moreover, this particular experiment is a ferocious drive for the greater good and excitedly, appears to be inspired straight out of sci-fi pop culture (think Jurassic Park meets Forever Young!).
The world as we know is humming its way through a sixth mass extinction, which threatens to wipe out over one million species. This is the most significant predicted loss of living biodiversity since the fall of the dinosaurs. Under normal circumstances, the lab coat community estimate that this rate of failure should take thousands of years. And, given the fragility of our biodiversity, they worry that this may be a domino effect that tips the collapse of civilization. Lab coat wearers, however, will not go gentle into that dark night and is attempting to strike back.
Humanity may be the main reason for this mass extinction event due to our deforestation, overfishing, pollution, and a list of other discrepancies as long as the tail of a premium white lab coat. But, thankfully, given our guiding hand in this crumbling infrastructure, a small group of lab coat wearers are attempting to cram an entire fist into the creaking dam.
The finger in the dyke in this scenario is a modern-day twist on Noah’s Ark. People of the white lab coat professions in the UK are building a cryogenic biobank that will host live cells from endangered animals before they disappear for good. The project, aptly named Nature’s SAFE (not one but two plays on words!), will also be the first living biobank in Europe. The plan is that when the science of the lab coat community eventually catches up, by indefinitely saving the live cells of thousands of threatened species, future generations of lab coat wearers will one day be able to revive them. Once thawed, the cells can regenerate, so they can be used in artificial reproduction. Nature’s SAFE will also store ovarian and testicular tissue from endangered animals.
Sadly, according to a UN report published in 2019, some species appear to be beyond the point of return and are already circling the drain. These include the black rhino, orangutan, and Sunda tiger, who have all been identified as having now reached extinction vortex. This means that such a small number of living individuals are left that they limit the genetic pool so much that it causes extreme inbreeding. Naturally, this makes the animal’s chance of survival much lower, and they edge slowly toward wipeout.
Nature’s SAFE has only been up and running since December 2020. Still, it plans to collect 50 million genetic samples and freeze them in time in their lab coat HQ. Animals making a list make for an exotic read. This isn’t just any old bread and butter shopping list. The scope of this group of lab coat wearers’ ambition is breathtaking. Species hoping to make a comeback include the Amur leopard, the mountain chicken frog, tamarin monkey, the mouse deer, the Colombian spider monkey, and the panther chameleon. Nature’s SAFE’s initiative is being backboned by more than just lab coat wearing scientists. Chester Zoo, the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, and the University of Oxford have all rowed in to make the project a success.
Of course, the idea that we may bring back animals from extinction was most popularly put forth in the 1993 summer blockbuster, Jurassic Park. And since then, many a lab coat has been dirtied trying to resurrect animals from the grave. In fact, in 2003, the groundwork was laid for the work that Nature’s SAFE is attempting to undertake today. Thanks to scientific intervention, a mountain goat gave birth to a Pyrenean ibex under the watchful eye of excited lab coat wearers. For two centuries, hunting had culled the Pyrenean ibex population, known locally as bucardos, beyond repair until only one remained. But that sole survivor (fun fact, she was named called Celia) died at the turn of the millennium when, of all things, she was hit by a falling branch. Step forward a lab coat team from the Centre for Agro-Nutrition Research and Technology in Aragon, Spain, led by scientist José Folch Pera, brought back an extinct animal for the first time.
Folch Pera and his team of lab coat wearing assistants had preserved skin cells from the ear of Celia in liquid nitrogen when it died. They then thawed the sample and inserted its DNA into 208 domestic goat eggs, emptied of their original genetic material. These eggs were implanted into a different subspecies of Spanish ibex, or goat-ibex hybrids, hoping they could become surrogate mothers. The odds were against them; only seven goats became pregnant, and only one bucardo managed to make it to full term.
Yet, in true “nature is the ultimate boss” mode, the victory was short-lived. The newborn bucardo, delivered by Caesarean section, died of respiratory failure around seven minutes after birth. Dissection revealed the animal had lung abnormalities, although its other organs looked normal (incidentally, there are shades of familiarity here to O.G. lab coat creation Dolly the Sheep who died of lung cancer after reaching the mid-way point of her expected lifespan). The species now holds the dubious distinction of being the first to have gone extinct twice. While the resurrection was technically a failure, the lab coat wearers had actually performed what up until that point had only been a simple theory: frozen cells from extinct animals could potentially revive species.
Biobanking may be the lab coat world's most incredible tool yet to fight extinction events. But, at present, separate experiments in the field to bring back woolly mammoths and the dodo are being hamstrung with hiccups. The problem that Nature’s SAFE also faces is that even if DNA is correctly and safely preserved in ice, it will still degrade against Father Time, and this risks leaving holes in the genetic makeup needed to produce fighting fit healthy animal. Nonetheless, the struggle preserves, the hope is that when the breakthrough is made in however many generations, the lab coat community of today will have left enough breadcrumbs to rebuild some of the unintended consequences that humanity’s actions has reaped upon the animal world. A noble goal indeed. Science, take a well-deserved bow.