In just 30 years time, 1,100 different species of animals - fully one-quarter of all known mammals - are expected to disappear off the face of the Earth. And don't forget the birds: 1,800 varieties will be gone by then as well.
Gone the way of the woolly mammoth and the dodo. Gone forever and, with them, our knowledge of their place in the evolutionary scheme of things.
Or maybe not.
The genetic footprints of the most threatened species are now being collected by the world's first DNA bank dedicated exclusively to endangered animals.
Since 2004, the little-known Frozen Ark project in Nottingham, England has been quietly gathering, storing and preserving genetic "backups" of species for whom conservation efforts have come too late - or not at all.
Priority is being given to 40 animals that are extinct in the wild but still living in zoos. Next in line are 10,000 or so species whose populations have fallen as human numbers inexorably rose.
The modern-day Noah's ark is a parallel project to the international seed bank housed in the Norwegian Arctic. Nicknamed the Doomsday Vault, it contains millions of seeds from every variety of food on Earth. It's the fallback in the event of a future calamity when humans have to learn again to grow food.
The Frozen Ark is a "doomsday animal vault." Small tissue samples of endangered species are being frozen and preserved in liquid nitrogen.
Their DNA can be extracted immediately or decades, even centuries hence, for any number of reasons. To provide, for example, genetic treatment for a disease that ravaged the species in the past.
An approving Bill Rapley, director of conservation, research and education at Toronto Zoo, says the project's unique collection of frozen DNA could have all sorts of future applications. He cites a form of face cancer that is wiping out the Tasmanian devil population. "One day, the frozen bank could supply an answer. It's an interesting and worthwhile project."
The ark is also collecting the eggs, sperm and embryos of vulnerable animals. If a species' level drops precipitously, they can be used for artificial fertilization, a process already employed by China to bolster its panda population.
The project, then, is considered an all-around Good Thing, biologically, environmentally? Yes and no.
Co-founder Ann Clarke, an immunologist at its University of Nottingham headquarters, says the philosophy behind the ark is, in fact, something of a lightning rod. Scientists don't like the enforced randomness of the collecting process. And conservationists don't like that it's working against time to save the genetic codes of species instead of the animals themselves.
"But we believe the two things work in tandem," Clarke says in a phone interview. "Then people ask if we are doing cloning."
No, they're not. Resurrecting extinct animals is not the ark's purpose. Nevertheless, progress in molecular biology has been so fast that no one can predict what will be possible in the coming years - including the astounding prospect of an extinct species being coaxed back to life.
"Our generation's job is to preserve the animals genetically," says Clarke. "It is for the future to decide what is needed, what should be done ethically."
She pauses, then asks: "Would you want to resurrect an animal whose habitat is long gone?"
A tricky question for many, but not a team of Australian scientists who, earlier this month, became the first to bring back to life a fragment of DNA from an extinct animal, the Tasmanian tiger. Once the world's largest marsupial, it looked like a cross between a dog and a tiger and was hunted to extinction in the early 1900s. The last of its kind died alone in Hobart Zoo in 1936.
Researchers were able to extract genetic material from 100-year-old tissues of a "tiger" that had been preserved in alcohol in a Melbourne museum. They injected one of its genes into a developing mouse embryo, where it proceeded to function normally, showing it was still viable.
"At a time when extinction rates are increasing at an alarming rate, especially of mammals, this research discovery is critical," said University of Melbourne zoologist Marilyn Renfree.
"For those species that have already become extinct, our method shows that access to their genetic biodiversity may not be completely lost."
So yes - in theory, on paper, as fantasized in Jurassic Park - it might one day be possible to reconstruct entire animals from their preserved DNA sequences.
A woolly mammoth frozen in the Siberian permafrost 10,000 years ago and discovered in 2007 still had a large chunk of DNA intact. It had survived through average temperatures of -10C. With the ark's liquid nitrogen at minus 196C, it's speculated that the DNA of its creatures might exist indefinitely - with all that that implies.
Though the project's database is kept in Nottingham, samples are collected by the Institute of Zoology and stored at the Natural History Museum. When the ark began, many institutions stored animal tissue, but seldom in a form that preserved DNA-laden cells. Fewer still focused on endangered species, says Clarke.
The ark's goal is to develop centres similar to itself in zoos, museums and university labs around the world.
Its budding nine-member consortium includes a British cryobiology project, which is in the process of banking tissues of all fish native to U.K. waters, especially those on the brink of extinction; a laboratory in Hyderabad, India that is preserving DNA tissue and reproductive organs from jeopardized species throughout the region; and the New Zealand Centre for Conservation Medicine, which has built a cryogenic freezer that can store up to 21,600 samples. Rapley at Toronto Zoo says he plans to get in touch; the San Diego Zoo has already.
Arguing that present-day efforts should be fixed only on protecting threatened species, not on gathering genomes is misguided, says Judith Eger, senior curator of mammals at the Royal Ontario Museum.
"We need both genetics and conservation," she says firmly.
Knowledge of where a species fits into nature's evolutionary network - who it was descended from, who it gave rise to - is crucial:
"You have to know about the animals you're working with in order to preserve them."
Noah would be proud.
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