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Introducing the RZSS WildGenes Biobank

11/12/2020 in RZSS

Dr Gill Murray-Dickson, biobanking research fellow at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and National Museums Scotland, goes behind the scenes to find out how to build a biobank, and why working together is crucial to enable future research for wildlife conservation:

As many who follow the work of RZSS WildGenes know, genetic material holds a wealth of information that can support conservation management and help fundamental, biological research.

For over five years I worked as a research scientist within the RZSS WildGenes team and understand the importance of good quality samples for supporting conservation management. However, as species and populations become more endangered, it can be difficult to access their genetic material, even for conservation purposes. And yet, within the UK alone (and indeed globally) there are already millions of samples held within zoo, museums and academic collections, that could be used to help population management and conservation research. If only we know where and what they are!

Natterjack toads are declining in the UK and RZSS needs genetic data to help conserve them.

© Pete MintingNatterjack toads are declining in the UK and RZSS needs genetic data to help conserve them.

Biobanks are curated collections of biological samples (such as tissue, blood, serum, DNA, gametes and cell lines) that are collected, preserved and maintained along with their associated data, following international biorepository standards and guidelines. Within the zoo community, EAZA has established a biobank to ensure that high quality samples from zoo animals are collected and correctly stored for molecular analysis across designated ‘hubs’; RZSS WildGenes (UK), Copenhagen zoo (Denmark), Antwerp zoo (Belgium), and The Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Germany).

 

Biobank samples are curated and stored, usually at a chilly -80°C.

© NMS - Biobank samples are curated and stored, usually at a chilly -80°C

Here in Scotland, RZSS WildGenes has also partnered with National Museums Scotland (NMS) to develop facilities for storing UK zoo and aquarium samples, supported by the BBSRC-funded CryoArks initiative. CryoArks partners (including RZSS, NMS, NHM, Cardiff University, the University of Edinburgh and the University of Nottingham) aim to increase the visibility and accessibility of samples in UK collections, such as the EAZA Biobank and the Frozen Ark.

Which brings me to the exciting news… the new RZSS WildGenes biobank facility! We have built a facility at Edinburgh Zoo, specifically for preparing and housing biobank samples. 

Within the facility, -80°C freezers will be used to cryo-preserve samples for future population management and conservation research. Samples will be stored alongside information about the individual animals and will be managed in a way that maximises the use and benefit of the genetic data produced.

At the National Museums Collection Centre (NMCC), we are developing parallel facilities so that sample collections can be backed up across the two sites. Almost every one of the museum samples is associated with a skin, skeleton, or specimen held in the museum’s collection. Together these collections are a significant contribution to the UK’s overall zoological biobank.

Building started at Edinburgh Zoo last year and once we were up and ready, the first job was to transfer over 600 samples already held at the RZSS WildGenes lab to the new facility.

We’re now fully operational and accepting samples from other UK zoos and research centres! By working together, we’ll ensure that zoos continue to play a significant part in current and future wildlife conservation research, that rare samples are safeguarded and properly stored for future needs and that the research, academic, and zoo communities are aligned in their common purpose to save species around the world.

Challenging? Certainly. Exciting? Yes. Beneficial? Absolutely!

Thanks for reading and check back soon to see our first sample donation arrive!

All the best,

Dr Gill Murray-Dickson

Biobanking research fellow at RZSS and NMS

The RZSS Property & Estates team working hard to build the new RZSS WildGenes biobank facility at Edinburgh zoo

The RZSS Property & Estates team working hard to build the new RZSS WildGenes biobank facility at Edinburgh zoo

 Each of these enormous new -80°C freezers can store up to about 40,000 samples!

Each of these enormous new -80°C freezers can store up to about 40,000 samples!

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