LOUISIANA’S FROZEN ARK
LOUISIANA’S FROZEN ARK
2005-05-22 at 1:43:00 pm #9664Louisiana’s frozen ark
The electronic metal gates closed ominously behind us as we
entered the exotic world of the Audubon Center for Research of Endangered
Species, just outside New Orleans.
Our small group of journalists was escorted into a place reminiscent of the
film Jurassic Park in more ways than one.
The movie is based on the fantasy of bringing rampaging dinosaurs back to
life through samples of ancient DNA preserved in amber.
The biggest carnivore they have cloned from DNA so far here at the centre is
an African wildcat; the science is very real, and it works.
Driving through the dense and lush forest, it wouldn’t have been too
surprising if a Tyrannosaurus had appeared out of the steamy undergrowth.
After a few minutes, we came upon the cages that house some of the cats that
put the centre at the forefront of animal cloning.
Our young guide, Erin Sarrat, who is assistant curator for the precious
animals and birds here, explained the extraordinary relationships between the
three animals prowling around in front of us: “Jazz was a cat who was created by
in vitro fertilisation.”
“He was born from a domestic cat, but he’s an African wildcat – interspecies
embryo transfer – the first ever for that kind of technology.”Pointing to the right-hand cage, she continued: “We cloned Jazz,
and got Ditteaux, then we cloned Jazz again, and got Miles.”
They are three genetically identical creatures, developed from one small
batch of cells.
The centre does not allow many visitors, and your movements are strictly
This is partly for safety’s sake, but also to protect the many rare and
endangered animals which shelter here.
For a humble bird like the Mississippi sandhill crane – whose numbers have
fallen to under 200 in the wild – the centre provides a refuge where a new
generation can be reared through artificial insemination, and then put back in
their natural habitat nearby.
But the most cutting-edge scientific work is happening at the white-walled
laboratories inside the centre’s elegant wooden lodge.
Dr Betsy Dresser is head of research, and she was keen to show us round her
so-called “frozen zoo”.
It’s not much to look at: a group of liquid nitrogen tanks cover the floor
looking more like milk churns than anything else.
But inside, there are cells from more than 1,000 different species which can
be kept in a preserved state for hundreds of years.
Dr Dresser held up one of the straws containing cell tissue, and explained
how the Noah’s Ark of the future works: “Once we’ve dropped it to the
temperature where we know the cryoprotectant is like a slush, we can drop it
instantly into liquid nitrogen, and essentially metabolism in the cells just
In theory, no species alive today should ever become extinct, as long as one
of the dozen frozen zoos around the world has a cell sample, she said: “If we’d
done this with the dinosaurs… the cells would be alive.”
Wouldn’t it be awful if habitat
was saved, and everyone turned around and said – but where are the animals?
Dr Betsy Dresser
Among the species they have suspended in cell form are gorillas,
Sumatran tigers and the mountain bongo antelope.
The chief executive of the whole Audubon Nature Institute – which also runs
more commercial attractions like the New Orleans zoo and aquarium – is Ron
He said that although donations were always welcome, they had turned down
several lucrative offers from private individuals to clone a beloved pet.
“We’re working through science to save species for the next generation. More
and more zoos are involved. There are partnerships all over the world to save
these species and put them back in their habitat.”
Aside from the impressive science involved, some conservationists have voiced
concern that frozen zoos will take the focus away from preserving natural
If animals can be saved in test tubes, why worry about their place of origin?
But Dr Dresser is adamant that a combined approach is the best and surest way
to stop the slow slide towards extinction.
“Hopefully in Europe they’ll be doing more of this in the future. It’s a
safety net… it’s a way of providing for your kids, and their kids.
“Wouldn’t it be awful if habitat was saved, and everyone turned around and
said – but where are the animals?”