Written by Andrew Kitchener, Principal Curator of Vertebrates, National Museums Scotland.
Many of us have probably been approached by eager PhD students and other researchers who want to snip a bit off those specimens or drill a few holes in others. As curators we start to feel somewhat uncomfortable about seeing our precious collections sliced and diced, and yet we are also keen to discover more about the genetic content of our specimens for their own sake. This is partly because collectively we can contribute to studies that benefit wild populations of species, including the conservation biology of many endangered species and the possibility of rewilding extirpated species. You may also have a chest freezer bursting with grip-seal bags or plastic tubes filled with tissue samples collected from specimens you have acquired, but you’ve no idea what to do with them, but you know they will be useful one day. Or maybe you have a freezer full of specimens you want to get rid of. CryoArks is a new initiative that just might help you to solve all these problems.
CryoArks is a BBSRC-funded project led by Professor Mike Bruford at Cardiff University, which has established the UK’s first comprehensive zoological biobank for research and conservation. CryoArks is a consortium of museums, zoos, academic institutions and biobanks, which is working together to establish common standards and working practices to store tissue and DNA samples and make them available on a common web portal, so that researchers and conservation biologists will be able to find out what is available for their research. This will help cut down on the sampling of our permanent collections by giving researchers something else to sink their scalpels into. CryoArks has two main sample storage hubs – at the Natural History Museum in London and at National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh – that currently house more than 65,000 samples, but we have room for almost a quarter of a million. The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland is also a joint CryoArks and European Association of Zoos and Aquaria biobank storage hub, bringing the zoo and non-zoo biobank communities together.
Biobanks are curated collections of biological samples (such as tissue, blood, serum, DNA, gametes and cell lines) that are collected, preserved and maintained along with their associated data, following international standards and guidelines. They have been widely developed for human samples, but so far animals have been largely neglected in the UK. Biological samples from wild and zoo animals are valuable sources of genetic material and provide a wealth of information that can support conservation management and help fundamental, biological research. Although zoological biobanks have been established in many other countries, this is the first nationwide attempt at linking all frozen animal collections in the UK.
Biobanking requires specialist ultra-low temperature freezing facilities and laboratory spaces to allow for long-term preservation of high quality tissue and DNA samples. These facilities can be expensive to buy, maintain and replace, and benefit from specialist knowledge which is probably why they have not been widely available in UK museums before now. CryoArks is offering physical storage at partner institutions (at -196°C, -80°C, -40°C and -20°C), an online searchable database, on- or off-site assistance in archiving sample material (if needed), and advice on embedding biobank sample collection during routine museum and field work. We have been spending the last two years planning and developing our biobank facilities and it has been hard work creating the infrastructure, developing the necessary paperwork, database and governance of the project, as well sorting through all those samples, but we are now ready to start discussing how we can work with you to make the best of your frozen collections both today and in the future.
During the lockdown you can find out more about CryoArks on the NatSCA website, www.natsca.org/cryoarks, or you can access the CryoArks website: www.cryoarks.org.
Please contact us (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you would like to find out more about CryoArks, or how to care for your samples or how to transfer them to CryoArks.
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