This week, Museum Victoria in Melbourne, Australia announced that it will be opening a biobank on their Carlton Campus. The focus of this bank will be to keep freezer inventory of reproductive tissue for the most endangered species in Australia. Advances in freezer software and technology are responsible for this announcement, which is due to open next year.
Biobanking, the practice of storing biological samples for use in research, has exploded in the last 15 years or so. In the US alone, the number of tissue samples in biobanks was reported to be about 300 million in the year 200, with that figure growing at a rate of about 20 million samples per year. Almost two-thirds of the biobanks in existence were founded in the last ten years, and while most of them (about 80%) are geared toward human medical research, biobanks like this one will really innovate the way humans conduct environmental research.
The museum’s current collection of animal tissue numbers at about 40,000, most of it being skin, fur, and feather samples. It took the last 160 years to collect, and the samples have been stored at about -80 degrees. The prize of the collection is a Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, embryo that is unfortunately no longer viable. Changes in freezer software and capabilities now allow them to store the samples at -150 degrees, which keeps reproductive tissue viable for at least 50 years. If this technology had been available 50 years ago, the thylacine might not be extinct today.
Australia has among the highest extinction rates in the world due to the isolation of the continent. In the years since Europeans were introduced to the continent, more than 40 mammal and aviary species have been lost. The museum’s obligation is to preserve and archive the heritage of the country, and that’s exactly what they hope this new biobank will do for Australia in the future.