CryoArks Biobank and COVID-19

Written by Andrew Kitchener, Principal Curator of Vertebrates, National Museums Scotland.

Biobanks may sound a bit dull when compared to shelves teeming with boxes filled with fascinating skeletons, or cabinets stuffed with colourful skins, beautiful eggs or pinned insects. Serried ranks of anonymous freezers, enhanced with the odd fridge magnet, could make your heart sink, but peep inside the biobanks’ databases and you will see an amazing array of biodiversity. 

CryoArks Biobank at National Museums Scotland ©National Museums Scotland

At National Museums Scotland we host one of the main hubs of the CryoArks Biobank initiative alongside our partners at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, who also host a hub of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria Biobank, and the Natural History Museum in London. CryoArks is a project led by Professor Mike Bruford of Cardiff University and funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council to establish zoological biobanking in the UK. As well as the -80o freezer infrastructure to store the tissue samples long term, CryoArks is developing an online database that will allow researchers to find out what genetic resources are available in the CryoArks Biobank hubs and in member institutions. With the advent of the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefits Sharing in 2014, access to genetic samples from species from range countries is more challenging. Therefore, it is vital that we make the best use of the samples already available in the UK and make these freely available to support research, much of which may benefit the conservation of endangered species worldwide. 

Gill Murray-Dickson accessing samples from the CryoArks Biobank © RZSS

As with most collections, they are not made for their own sake, but for the potential for research that can make a difference. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage around the world, there have been a variety of studies that have investigated its impact on mammals. Primates and mustelids seem to be amongst the most susceptible, but not all species may be affected similarly. Biobank collections of muscle tissue samples, such as at National Museums Scotland, offer unique opportunities to investigate the differences between species’ susceptibility to COVID-19.

Andrew Kitchener sorting out lemur tissue samples in the CryoArks Biobank ©National Museums Scotland

In 1965 an angwantibo, Arctocebus calabarensis, arrived at Edinburgh Zoo from Nigeria. It stayed in our freezer until 1997, when it was prepared as a skin and skeleton for the research collections. At the same time we kept a small muscle sample tissue just in case a researcher wanted to extract some DNA for molecular studies. We had started doing this routinely some years earlier and unwittingly this was the beginning of our accidental biobank. Angwantibos are African lorises and are not endangered but they are very rare in zoos, so I knew that this and two other samples would be in much demand. For example, samples from our angwantibos were used in a phylogenetic study by Pozzi et al. (2015), which showed that the African lorises (pottos and angwantibos) are more closely related to galagos or bushbabies than they are to Asian lorises.

Crowned lemur, Eulemur coronatus, baby and its mother, Edinburgh Zoo © RZSS

A few years ago we were invited to collaborate with the Primate Variation Genome Consortium and provided more than sixty tissue samples, including the angwantibo samples. A recent study by Melin et al. (2021) used some of those samples and has compared the structure of the angiotensin-converting enzyme-2 (ACE-2) in strepsirrhine primates (lemurs, lorises and bushbabies) to see how similar it is to the human form. ACE-2 is the main cellular target for the SARS‐CoV‐2, which causes COVID-19. The results of this study show that lemurs, especially the aye-aye and sifakas, have a similar ACE-2 to that of humans and hence are in theory highly susceptible to COVID-19, whereas lorises and bushbabies are not. These results may have important implications for the conservation of lemurs in the wild and in zoos. It is remarkable to think that an angwantibo that lived in Edinburgh Zoo more than 50 years ago has contributed to our knowledge about today’s pandemic and its potential impact on other primates. Biobanks provide that long-term genetic resource to give us answers to today’s important problems.

If you would like to find out more about biobanking or donate samples to the CryoArks Biobank, please contact cryoarks@nms.ac.uk

References

Melin, A.D., Orkin, J.D., Janiak, M.C., Valenzuela, A., Kuderna, L., Marrone III, F., Ramangason, H., Horvath, J.E., Roos, C.,  Kitchener, A.C., Khor, C.C., Lim, W.K., Lee, J.G.H., Tan, P., Umapathy, G., Raveendran, M., Harris, R.A., Gut, I., Gut, M., Lizano, E., Nadler, T., Zinner, D., Johnson, S.E., Jarvis, E.D., Fedrigo, O., Wu, D., Zhang, G., Farh, K.K.-H., Rogers, J., Marques-Bonet, T., Navarro, A., Juan, D.,  Arora, P.S. and Higham, J.P. (in press). Variation in predicted COVID-19 risk among lemurs and lorises. American Journal of Primatology e23255 https://doi.org/10.1002/ajp.23255.

Pozzi, L., Nekaris, K.A.-I., Perkin, A., Bearder, S.K., Pimley, E.R., Schulze, H., Streicher, U., Nadler, T., Kitchener, A., Zischler, H., Zinner, D. and Roos, C. 2015. Remarkable ancient divergences amongst neglected lorisiform primates. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 175(3): 661-674.  https://doi.org/10.1111/zoj.12286.

Andrew Kitchener, Principal Curator of Vertebrates, National Museums Scotland a.kitchener@nms.ac.uk

Gill Murray-Dickson, CryoArks Biobank Research Fellow, National Museums Scotland/Royal Zoological Society of Scotland g.murraydickson@nms.ac.uk

You can read more about CryoArks in Andrew Kitchener’s post from September 2020 ‘CryoArks – Discover The UK’s First Zoological Biobank’.

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