DNA was the topic of U.S. Supreme Court argument on April 15. Can a gene be patented if it occurs in nature—which is generally grounds for exclusion—but has been identified by an individual scientist or company and removed from the cells in which it occurs? Lower courts are split on the matter, and the justices didn’t tip their hands.
But whether a gene can be patented will be irrelevant if it disappears before anyone has identified it. That is what’s happening now and will continue to happen—at a rate perhaps 100 to 200 times faster than in prehistoric days—due to modern man’s outsize influence on nature and encroachment on habitat. Unless we have sequenced a species’ DNA, extinction means gone forever and never really known. Preservation of the DNA is the simpler, cheaper route, with sequencing to follow. If the Library of Congress is where every book is stored, the world needs the equivalent for species DNA.
Preserving the DNA of known species would provide genetic libraries for research and commerce and for recovery of species that are endangered—the Armur Leopard and the Northern Right Whale, for example. Preservation would also offer the potential to restore species that have gone extinct. We currently lack preserved DNA for most of the 1.9 million species that have been named, but that is fewer than the number of people in Houston. No doubt additional species exist, but their DNA can be preserved as they are named. The job is doable.
Just a small fraction of species are maintained as living organisms in cultivation or captivity or are kept frozen as viable seeds or cells. These are the best, because whole, reproducing organisms can be grown from them by planting or cloning. Botanical gardens and zoos keep the living stuff. The Millennium Seed Bank at Kew Gardens in England is on a course to preserve frozen seeds of all vascular plant species, and the Svalbard Seed Vault in Norway is taking seed duplicates from other facilities. The San Diego “Frozen Zoo” has some 20,000 viable cell cultures representing 1,000 vertebrate species, including “Lonesome George,” the last Pinta Island Galapagos tortoise, which expired last year. Its DNA would have disintegrated if the Frozen Zoo hadn’t made a heroic mission after the tortoise’s death to get a sample.
The American Museum of Natural History in New York keeps 70,000 samples in liquid nitrogen, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia has frozen samples for 4,000 bird species, and the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian has embarked on an ambitious course to freeze species tissues.
For a fraction more species, DNA is kept at low temperature in dead cells or extracted form. The American Museum of Natural History in New York keeps 70,000 samples in liquid nitrogen, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia has frozen samples for 4,000 bird species, and the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian has embarked on an ambitious course to freeze species tissues.
Yet the DNA of most species is still not preserved. We need a plan. One might think that preserving the DNA of life on earth would cost a moonshot of money. But a viable cell culture in liquid nitrogen for a species at the Frozen Zoo costs only $200 to $300 to establish and just $1 a year to maintain. Multiplying $250 per species by 1.9 million species comes to $475 million, ignoring what has already been done. The U.S. pays more than twice that daily on the national debt. But let’s be real, nobody is throwing new money around, even when the priority is obvious.
There is another way that could work, and would be much cheaper. First, we could develop a website to track progress on preservation whose key information is managed directly by contributing facilities. It would be a “wiki” site for DNA repositories, and many keepers would be delighted to share information if they could manage it themselves. They could both update holdings and let people know what species they will take and under what conditions.
Second, we can establish new incentives and mandates for contributing specimens, including grant, publication and permit requirements. Some grant makers and publications already require that DNA information be shared with a genetic information bank kept by the National Institutes of Health. Why not tissue too?
Third, donors who care could help develop and fund “citizen science” projects of museums and nonprofit groups to collect, identify and contribute specimens to repositories. The collections would grow, and so might public connection to nature. At the end of it all, we will preserve what we appreciate. And patent lawyers will be happy too, because they’ll have something to fight about.