A Network of Biobanking for Conservation

The extensive loss of biodiversity around the world is a critical threat to the health of wildlife, humans, and the ecosystems we share and depend on. Our planet is in the midst of a massive extinction crisis: wildlife populations have declined by an average of 69% since 1970, and we are rapidly losing the genetic variation that underpins species’ potential to adapt to our increasingly changing world. The preservation of genetic diversity through biobanking is necessary in understanding, characterizing, and conserving biodiversity. Biobanking is also an explicit component of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) One Plan approach, which bridges conservation inside and outside of species’ natural ranges, so that ex situ and in situ conservation activities are integrated.

San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance’s Oliver Ryder, Ph.D., Kleberg Endowed Director of Conservation Genetics, is helping catalyze a network of biobanking for conservation. Through the newly formed Animal Biobanking for Conservation Specialist Group (ABC SG)—part of the IUCN Species Survival Commission—Oliver and the group are organizing a worldwide effort to collect, bank, and share genetic resources as a key tenet of current and future conservation efforts.

Oliver and Boripat Siriaroonrat, DVM (Maihdol University, Thailand), serve as the founding Co-Chairs of the ABC SG, which was established in 2022. “The vision of the ABC SG is to create a global network for sharing information and expertise to establish facilities that cryopreserve viable cells and tissues of animals,” says Oliver. “Our ability to freeze and thaw living materials, and have them resume their function, is a milestone in the history of life. This is a remarkable step forward for conservation on a global scale.” He explains that banked viable materials serve as the foundation of a crucial new set of conservation options, particularly as we develop technologies that enable genetic rescue and foster unprecedented levels in our understanding of life on earth.

San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance’s Frozen Zoo® (part of our Wildlife Biodiversity Bank) has more than 10,600 viable cell lines banked, and it is the most extensive, most characterized, and most utilized resource of its kind in the world.

One of the first steps for the group will be to perform what Oliver calls a “horizon scan”: essentially, determining who is currently banking viable materials and which species have been banked so far. This baseline information is necessary to design an efficient global system for continuing to collect samples from across ecosystems and taxa. Because approximately 15% of threatened terrestrial vertebrates on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species are under managed care in zoos and aquaria around the world, these institutions could play a central role in the initial efforts to catalog and bank biodiversity.

Surveying the biobanking landscape is also necessary to identify gaps in participant and stakeholder representation, and to therefore ensure that all ABC SG efforts are inclusive, just, and equitable. “Fostering capacity enhancement opportunities, sharing the benefits of biodiversity resources, and recognizing the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities are all essential to the mission of the ABC SG,” says Oliver. This commitment to building an inclusive network to fairly protect and manage genetic resources is also consistent with the overarching goals of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, the historic agreement reached at COP15.

Analyses of cryopreserved samples can yield invaluable biological insights, and have immense value for conservation and our understanding of life on Earth.

The ABC SG currently has members from 22 participating institutions, representing more than 14 countries. The group has so far convened through a series of virtual and in-person meetings, including at the 2022 annual meeting of the Conservation Planning Specialist Group, and at the 2022 meeting of the Southeast Asian Biobanking Network. The group is tentatively planning another meeting (with virtual and in-person options) immediately prior to the annual meeting of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, held in San Diego, California, in October 2023.

“We have a unique opportunity in time to collect viable materials, which are so important for understanding extinction risk, management, interventions, and for all the aspects of the One Plan approach,” adds Oliver. “Our careful attention to these efforts today is going to be invaluable in protecting biodiversity for the future.”