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Nations Adopt 'Doomsday Vaults' to Preserve Plant, Animal DNA Through Freezing

Since the 1980s, "Doomsday Vaults" have emerged around the world to preserve plant seeds and animal DNA for both economic and preservation purposes.

Traditionally, reserves for plant and animal species have been built, but some agencies have decided to focus their preservation efforts in the storage of species' genetic material rather than the species itself.

The name "Doomsday Vaults" recently caught on as these storage facilities began to house thousands upon thousands of seeds and DNA samples.

The United States, Mexico and China are among the many countries that have jumped on board with the idea of storing DNA and seed samples for conservation.

Some of these facilities housing samples are even capable of withstanding nuclear fallout.

The concept involves taking DNA, cells or seeds from a given species and storing it at low temperatures. This method of conservation has several technical hurdles that need to be dealt with such as finding an ideal storing temperature and factoring in decay rate of samples; however, nations and researchers see a significant value to this method of preservation.

The changing climate throughout the world has also made these storage facilities a viable option to ensure the survival of species. As more and more species are threatened in areas such as the Amazon Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef, researchers hope to secure the survival of as many species as possible through cryogenic preservation.

Sovereign states see an economic value in storage-driven methods of conservation as well. In September of 2015, the government of Syria had to withdraw drought resistant crops from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway which houses over 860,000 different seeds. Access to their own seed vault in the city of Aleppo, Syria, was cut off due to the ongoing conflict between the al-Assad regime, the Islamic State and the Syrian rebels.

"They got their seeds back from Svalbard in order to regenerate their new samples and send some back after a couple of years," Senior Advisor for the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food Evjen Grethe Helene said.

Svalbard does not focus on the preservation of new species. Instead, it is used as an insurance for green banks, smaller version of seed banks, to store outside of their own nations as backup. Helene stated they may see new species of plants being added to the vault in the future as they become threatened by climate change.

In February of 2015, the San Diego Frozen Zoo announced that they plan to use the stored DNA from the Northern White rhino to bring back this species from the brink of extinction. According to the World Wildlife Fund, only four northern white rhinos, all of which are in captivity, remain.

In March of 2015, the International Center for Agricultural Coalition in the Dry Areas was awarded the Gregor Mendel Prize for Innovation for ensuring that 80 percent of the seeds stored in Aleppo made it to the Svalbard Vault. The team saved and transported over 150,000 different seeds to Norway.

Researchers in the University of Nottingham, with the help of 22 other consulting members stationed in nations such as Germany and Korea, are working on an ever-growing cryogenic storage unit known as the Frozen Ark Project. The goal behind this project is to minimize the number of extinctions due to man-made causes.

Co-founder and Nottingham Professor Ann Clarke began this project alongside her husband, Bryan Clarke, while studying the colonization of French Polynesia and the introduction of a type of snails which led to the extinction of several native species of snails within 15 years.

"The project is to cryobank the DNA, the live cells and all the other information available in the cytoplasm, epigenetics and the sperm and the eggs for the conservation of endangered breeding programs," Ann Clarke said.

The Frozen Ark Project was started as a charity in 2003 and currently houses over over 48,000 samples from 5,500 species. Brazil, India and Australia are just a few of the countries from which samples have been collected.

The longevity of this project is still unknown. Long-term freezing of samples in liquid nitrogen has never been done before so the project is still experimental. Temperature ranges also change according to the species' class; reptile samples require a different storing temperature than mammals which is different from insects and so forth. Therefore, different preservation models are needed for different animals.

The nordic countries began housing their seeds in an abandoned coal mine in Svalbard in the 1980s. By 2004, the United Nations had become interested in a security backup plan for green banks; since the official opening in 2008, the vault has been used by more than 66 different organizations and houses more than 850,000 seed samples.

While this project may seem like a huge undertaking, there are others with similarly lofty goals. For example, the Millennium Seed Bank Project has goals to house as much as 20 percent of the world's wild plant species by 2020.

The longevity of these projects is still unknown due to uncertainty of specimen decay. However, nations and individuals continue to see an ever-growing interest in this alternative method to combat extinction.