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USFWS’s biobanking initiative aims to preserve endangered species’ genetic data, combating biodiversity loss from climate change threats.

In response to the escalating threats posed by climate change to wildlife, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) has announced a groundbreaking initiative. Collaborating with the nonprofit Revive & Restore and other partners, they aim to establish a "genetic library" of the nation's endangered species.

The threats from climate change, such as habitat loss and reduced food availability, are pushing many endangered species in the U.S. towards the brink of extinction. The loss of these species would also mean the loss of invaluable genetic data.

The USFWS's innovative solution involves "biobanking." This process entails collecting biological samples like blood, tissues, and reproductive cells from endangered animals. These samples are then cryogenically preserved at temperatures of at least -256 degrees Fahrenheit and stored in a USDA facility located in Colorado. Furthermore, the genetic information from these samples will be sequenced and made available on GenBank, a public database. This will allow researchers to study and compare the genomes of these endangered species.

This initiative is not just about preservation. The cryogenically preserved cells could play a pivotal role in future conservation strategies. Experts believe that these samples could introduce much-needed genetic diversity into captive breeding programs or even be used in cloning efforts.

Seth Willey, a senior official with the FWS, emphasized the importance of modern solutions for contemporary conservation challenges. He highlighted biobanking as a tool that can help conserve the biodiversity of today for future generations. Since its inception in January, the project has successfully gathered and preserved samples from five endangered species, including the Mexican wolf and the Florida bonneted bat. While the pilot phase focuses on 24 U.S. endangered mammals, the ultimate goal is much grander: to biobank every endangered mammal in the country.

A testament to the potential of this initiative is the story of the black-footed ferret. Once abundant across the Great Plains, this species is now among North America's most endangered, with a mere 300 individuals in the wild. A significant challenge in conserving this species is its limited gene pool, as nearly every black-footed ferret descends from just seven ancestors. This lack of genetic diversity makes them susceptible to threats like diseases.

This frozen library of living cells could be crucial for current and future conservation efforts, particularly for helping introduce genetic diversity into captive breeding programs working to rebuild species populations or even for cloning, experts say.

However, in a historic breakthrough in 2020, scientists in Fort Collins, Colorado, cloned a black-footed ferret named Elizabeth Ann. This clone was created using tissue from a sample frozen in the 1980s, introducing much-needed genetic diversity to the species. This achievement was a collaborative effort involving the FWS, Revive & Restore, and the San Diego Zoo Alliance.

Oliver Ryder, a conservation genetics expert at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, underscored the significance of this achievement. He highlighted the potential of using frozen cells, stored for decades, to reintroduce genetic resilience lost over time.

Elizabeth Ann's existence underscores the importance of proactive biobanking. Ryan Phelan, the executive director of Revive & Restore, remarked on the foresight of those who preserved living tissues decades ago, even without a clear understanding of how science might evolve.

According to Inside Climate News, the current focus of the biobanking project is on collection, preservation, and genome cataloging. While cloning isn't an immediate goal, the stored genomes can assist researchers in evaluating genetic diversity and pinpointing populations at risk. Moreover, these frozen samples might support future conservation technologies that are yet to be conceived.

In essence, the USFWS's biobanking initiative is a forward-thinking endeavor, ensuring that the rich biodiversity of the U.S. is preserved for generations to come.

Eunice is a sustainability writer whose passion is sharing accessible eco-friendly practices with GreenCitizen's global readership. She enjoys birdwatching during her downtime, often deriving inspiration from nature's resilience. An enthusiastic cyclist, she is also an ardent advocate of eco-friendly transport.

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