BBR-CryoArks: Enhancing frozen collections for non-model and endangered animal taxa

Lead Research Organisation: Cardiff University
Department Name: School of Biosciences


The CryoArks biobank is a much-needed initiative to bring together many diverse and disconnected collections of animal material found in museums, zoos, research institutes and universities in the UK. Currently, if a scientist funded by the BBSRC wishes to find a sample of a particular animal species, subspecies, breed or population for DNA sequencing, they have no place where they can search for the location except for a few museum collections, some of which are not located in the UK. In 2014, the Nagoya Protocol for access and benefit-sharing of genetic resources was implemented by the United Nations. The Nagoya protocol was designed to stop developing countries losing out when genetic material collected from species within their border was used to develop, for example, new anti-cancer drugs. Unfortunately, it has also stopped much of the movement of genetic materials for non-commercial research, such as is carried out by many BBSRC scientists. As a result of the Nagoya Protocol, the UK needs to develop its own genetic banks for animal species. These banks hide a treasure trove of genetic material that can tell us about our own history and tell us why certain species have unusual characteristics - for example why does the naked mole-rat rarely get cancer? Understanding the genetic basis of species biology is key to understanding our own biology. So, we need to improve access to animal biological specimens to the UK research community and the best way to do that is to organise, centralise and properly resource it. Two organisations, the Frozen Ark Project and the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), are actively seeking to expand their biobanks that focus on endangered species and zoo/aquarium animals, respectively. The CryoArks project would join these organisations with three universities, the Natural History Museum in London and the National Museums Scotland to provide the infrastructure and expertise to take animal biobanks to a new level of access, organisation and species coverage. All the UK's main zoos are in favour of this development, as are museums and scientists within UK universities who manage large biobanks. This is because managing these facilities is costly, time-consuming and poorly resourced. The CryoArks biobank initiative would solve this problem and has the potential to elevate BBSRC-funded research by access to some of the most important genetic material available on the planet. The idea of biobanking also needs to be explained to the public, who might view it as a precursor to resurrecting extinct species and may have severe ethical problems with cloning of these and other species. To help dispel any myths around biobanking, we will establish and run, through the Frozen Ark and Edinburgh Zoo, a series of educational initiatives, including videos and web-based education activities. We hope to demystify frozen collections and allow the public to realise what an invaluable resource they represent.

Technical Summary

CryoArks will create the first conjoined UK animal biobank that crosses multiple institutions and that links their collections via a common database. UK animal tissue resource banks have traditionally been operated at a local level with diverse standards, governance and facilities. This diversity reflects a general paucity of resources for animal biobanking (compared with, for example, human tissue banking) and a lack of appreciation of what material is available if one combines the resources of museums, zoos, institutes and universities. CryoArks will therefore provide the resource underpinning for a new animal biobank within the UK, which will operate to the highest international standards and allow UK scientists to access material within their own borders - a necessity since the implementation of the Nagoya Protocol. Activities will include a synthesis of UK animal tissue collections, focusing on the gaps that exist in terms of taxonomic and tissue-type coverage, and compiling an inventory of needs. CryoArks will also develop a database of samples held within all relevant collections, aggregating these data using a very powerful, user-friendly and open-source software, Specify, which allows aggregation of diverse datasets into a single repository that can be queried, updated and accessed freely. CryoArks will both transform physical infrastructure (NMS) and cost-effectively utilise existing capacity (NHM). This will allow us to store up to 230,000 specimens, some of which will be duplicated from current collections and others will be transferred in their entirety. CryoArks will also launch a new sampling initiative to expand its taxonomic coverage by 50%. In addition to the above activities, CryoArks will carry out a series of educational activities to enable both the end-user community and the public to understand what valuable resources these represent and how they can be used to enhance the visibility and level of UK, and especially BBSRC-facing science.

Planned Impact

The CryoArks biobank will deliver the maximum impact possible to the UK BBSRC-facing research community providing researchers with access to unique samples from biological resources that have been thus far unavailable. With vigorous and sustained engagement with results and contents clearly disseminated, its impact will be rapid and substantial. First, 20 members of the end-user community will be invited to the project kick-off meeting, including all academics detailed in the 'demand'-based letters of support. This will give them opportunity to shape the resource and to interact with collection managers, biobankers and vets. It will also allow priority samples to be identified for the sampling initiative. CryoArks will produce a series of short biobanking sampling tutorial videos to be used in the training of academic, museum and zoo/aquarium submitters to CryoArks.

A key metric by which to evaluate impact within the academic community will be the number of sample requests received and this will be evaluated on a quarterly basis to assess take-up and adjust the dissemination strategy, if needed. This real-time assessment will be carried out for the duration of the project. Scientific publications (reviews of the state of UK animal biobanking, international standards in animal biobanking, and additional publications on usage patterns as they arise) will be disseminated by CryoArks. Twitter, Facebook and ResearchGate (where CryoArks will be established as a continuing research project) presence will ensure high visibility of the project within the social-media-aware academic community. A final meeting will be convened in Year 3, and once again will feature an end-user showcase where use of the biobank will be discussed and papers will be presented that feature samples from the CryoArks biobank. These papers will then be showcased on the CryoArks website.

The CryoArks website will include pages for the general public, sample submitters and sample users (zoo, research and commercial). Reach will be evaluated through site-visit metrics and the design of the website will be adjusted according to feedback, which will be encouraged. During the first year, CryoArks social media channels will be established for dissemination of news and further dissemination will be carried out via existing partner institutions' social media channels, which combined have approximately 2.7M followers. At the end of the first year, a short "What's the purpose of biobanking?" introductory video will be produced for general education and outreach, and for use on the CryoArks website, YouTube and other social media channels. Four biobanking workshops will be held at relevant scientific and public-outreach meetings, and we estimate these will reach minimally 200 key users.

For zoo-based dissemination, Project Partner RZSS will carry out a series of activities, including the production of videos aimed at secondary-school children and showcasing participating scientist careers, to be used on the CryoArks' website and as social media content. In addition, RZSS will install CryoArks biobanking interpretation panels at Edinburgh Zoo, the Highland Wildlife Park and other participating sites with a combined estimate of >2 million visitors per year.


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