20/12/2021

The Barcelona Zoo Foundation has created the BioBanc for conservation, southern Europe's leading animal cell and tissue bank

The aim of the project, the first of this type in Spain, is to protect biodiversity by preserving animal biomaterial.

The BioBanc has two sites: one at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology (a joint Pompeu Fabra University (UPF) and Spanish National Research Council (CSIC)) facility, and one at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB).

It has been created in accordance with the goals of Barcelona Zoo's New Model, giving priority to research and promoting work aimed at achieving the conservation of species, with emphasis on the most endangered ones.

The project enjoys the support of leading research and biodiversity professionals, such as Dr Oliver Ryder, the director of the Frozen Zoo in San Diego, which is the largest biobanking for conservation project in the world, and the collaboration of UAB researcher Manel López Béjar and Tomàs Marquès i Bonet, a researcher of the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies (ICREA) of the UPF.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), more than 30,000 animal species are currently endangered, a figure that is growing year on year. In this context of increasing threats to biodiversity and the prospect of mass extinction - on this occasion at our own hand - the preservation of animal materials for future generations is a matter of priority.

In view of the situation, the Barcelona Zoo Foundation is promoting and coordinating the BioBanc for conservation project, a comprehensive project for the preservation of viable cells and biomaterial that also aims to facilitate a less invasive way to study animals, giving priority to research that helps conserve species both now and in the future.

The BioBanc has been developed to address the need to provide a sustainable resource of samples for genetic and genomic research into animal species. The research we need to carry out is hampered - both in the case of animals living in captivity and those in the wild - by the increasingly obvious issue of obtaining the necessary permissions. There is therefore a clear and increasingly obvious need for the responsible provision to researchers of molecular and genomic samples collected without detriment to animal welfare.

The Barcelona Zoo Foundation, driven by BioBanc, wants to efficiently homogenise the animal cell and tissue samples collected so far, particular those from endangered animals, not just from Barcelona Zoo but also from other sources. This will facilitate a responsible and sustainable use of samples for a wide range of uses, improving the crucial research and conservation of endangered species as a result of knowing more about the problems affecting ecosystems or the monitoring of populations, among others.

The BioBanc has the following goals and lines of work:

  • The conservation of all kinds of animal tissue, with priority for neural and reproduction-related tissue.
  • The creation of viable cell lines and stem cell lines.
  • The use of in vitro reproduction technology.
  • Histology, the study of the microscopic structures of biological material, and cytometry for the study of blood cells.
  • Full molecular characterisation of the most endangered species.

The aim of all this is to help preserve species by means of informed management from molecular and environmental as well as a population point of view.

The Barcelona Zoo Foundation's BioBanc is based mainly, although not exclusively, in two sites: a viable tissue and gamete Bank at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB), and Cryo-Zoo, a cell line Bank at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology (a joint UPF-CSIC facility). The initiative was created with its sights clearly set on the international arena and the ambition to become a leading facility in Europe, particularly in the south of the continent, in which institutions such as the Iberian Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AIZA) are already involved and will surely play a significant role in global initiatives such as the World Biobank for Conservation.

This project is fully in line with the goals of Barcelona Zoo's New Model, which was approved in 2019 with education, research and conservation as its strategic pillars. This will promote work aimed at the preservation of biodiversity, particularly for endangered species, and gives research high priority status in its activities. Based on the New Zoo Model guidelines, work with tissue and cells has been redesigned, expanding and improving the biobank's infrastructure to adapt to the new challenges in the field of research.

Tissue and Gamete Bank

An altruistic project for the conservation of dead tissue from animals of interest to the Zoo for use in research studies was launched with the UAB in 2003. In line with the spirit of that project, the BioBanc aims to regularise and standardise processes and work to ensure that tissue contributions do not come only from Barcelona Zoo but also from many other facilities. The person in charge of the bank at the UAB is Dr Manel López Béjar, a researcher at the Department of Animal Health and Anatomy. The Tissue Bank is coordinated by Dr Annaïs Carbajal, a researcher at the UAB.

The Tissue Bank contains over 11,000 tissue samples from up to 284 different species, almost 3,000 of which come from Barcelona Zoo.  It houses up to 30 different tissue types (from plasma, serum, faeces, urine, hair, feathers, saliva, testicles, ovaries, scales, whalebone, cetacean blubber and more), which are stored at room temperature or refrigerated, frozen at -20 ºC or kept in liquid nitrogen tanks. Of the more than 200 samples of reproductive tissue (testicles, ovaries, semen and ovocytes) from 68 different species preserved in nitrogen tanks, about 120 came from Barcelona Zoo.

The Biobanc gives interested members of the scientific community access to quality material, helping increase mankind's knowledge of animal species and develop new techniques, tools or technologies to increase awareness and research in the field of animal science, particularly to address the loss of biodiversity.

The Cryo-Zoo, an innovative cell-related project mirroring the San Diego facility  

The Barcelona Zoo Foundation has been working on the Cryo-Zoo in collaboration with the Institute of Evolutionary Biology (IBE) since 2018. The Cryo-Zoo, which is part of an innovative field of work based on cell lines, was created with the intention of becoming Europe's answer to San Diego's Frozen Zoo, a a pioneering institution since it was created in 1964 that has gained worldwide recognition in this field, with the world's largest collection of cell lines in the world: 10,000 from over 900 species.

The Frozen Zoo, which is part of the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance Biodiversity Bank, is a tool used to expand the global legacy of irreplaceable reproductive, genetic and medical materials to support a world in which life thrives.

In order to achieve this, its coordinator, Cira Martinez, will be supported by Dr Oliver Ryder, Kleberg Endowed Director of Conservation Genetics at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, acting as external advisor, and by Dr Tomàs Marques i Bonet, fostering the exchange of knowledge and personnel to help promote the Cryo-Zoo.  

The distinguishing feature that sets Cryo-Zoo apart from similar initiatives is that in its case cell lines are not merely stored: each sample - i.e. each cell line generated for a specific specimen - is karyotyped. The aim is to carry out molecular characterisation (with the full genome, for example) and make it publicly available to researchers. This means that not only will it provide a valuable store of cells but it will also provide a store of molecular information rendering it unnecessary to repeatedly interact with animals held in captivity.  

Furthermore, the Cryo-Zoo will be able to use cell reprogramming techniques on these first cells to create iPS (induced pluripotent) stem cells that could in future be differentiated into reproductive cells, a solution of last resort for endangered animals. As to genetic data, these will make it possible to carry out comparative studies between species, combat illegal animal trafficking and potentially eventually restore the genetic diversity that has been lost in recent decades.  

The Cryo-Zoo houses 230 samples (from 118 different species) around 50% of which come from Barcelona Zoo. It has about 120 established cell lines of which 70% come from Barcelona Zoo. As to sequenced genomes, it has 45 full genomes, 90% of which are of samples from Barcelona Zoo, and around 50 karyotypes, 80% of which come from Barcelona Zoo samples.

Addressing the loss of biodiversity

The Biobanc gives interested members of the scientific community access to quality material, helping increase our knowledge of animal species and develop new techniques, tools or technologies to increase awareness and research in the field of animal science, particularly to address the loss of biodiversity.

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