Should we seal DNA samples from Earth’s endangered species in a lunar crater?

While ocean warming and pollution continue to degrade the world’s coral reefs unprecedented ratescientists are investigating the feasibility of preserving it – in the outermost room.

The idea is to store a biobank — a biobank that stores samples of biological material that have been cooled to temperatures low enough to essentially freeze in time — in permanently shadowed craters on the moon, which scientists say that the low temperatures would be suitable to preserve such a facility for hundreds of years. The samples, in this case coral genetic material, would be returned Soil on demand and reseeded in our oceans to restore living reefs.

‘There is no place on earth that is cold enough’ Maria Hagedorn, a senior researcher at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, told This also applies to the coldest areas on our planet – the North and South Poles – which are warming rapidly as a result of climate change. faster than any other area on Earth.

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It is therefore unlikely that scientists will be able to keep samples at the required cold temperatures for hundreds of years, Hagedorn said. ‘Who knows what the poles will look like? They are change the fastest.”

Similar to the procedures used in human sperm banks, the technique used by scientists to freeze and store coral germ cells (sperm and larvae) involves cooling the samples to temperatures close to that of liquid nitrogen, which corresponds to -196 degrees Celsius (-320 degrees Fahrenheit). By comparison, even the coldest place on Earth would feel warm – the East Antarctic Plateau, for example, has a frigid temperature of −98 degrees Celsius (−144 degrees Fahrenheit).

However, craters pockmarked in the moon’s polar regions never receive direct sunlight, because the moon’s axis is almost perfectly perpendicular to the moon’s direction. the sun‘s light. There, temperatures drop to −250 degrees Celsius (−415 degrees Fahrenheit), making them the coldest places in our solar system. These conditions, Hagedorn argues, are favorable for preserving the frozen samples for hundreds of years.

‘Frozen and alive’

The standard practice for freezing and preserving biological material, known as cryopreservation, pauses all biological activity so that the specimens remain “frozen and alive,” says Hagedorn, an expert on cryopreservation. “It’s like you pressed the time button and said, ‘Okay, stop now.'”

So far, scientists have done that collected taken samples of living colonies, skeletons and genetic material from 200 coral species and stored them safely – but to put that into perspective, there are around 1,000 known coral species worldwide, and therefore around 800 remain to be conserved. This urgency to collect the remaining species is further underscored by the fact that marine heat waves, due to global warming, place biological stress on corals and “render their reproductive material too weak to withstand the rigors of cryopreservation and thawing” , says Hagedorn. wrote in an article published in mid-April in Het Gesprek.

Hagedorn is part of a team that has been successful so far more than 50 species of corals cryopreserved from the Great Barrier Reef, the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, among others. The samples are kept in biorepositories worldwide, but the very fact that they are on Earth makes them susceptible to the dire consequences of climate change, she said. For example, in 2017, meltwater from Arctic permafrost that had thawed due to extreme temperatures violated a secure Norwegian biorepository. This was a biobank that safeguards duplicates of the world’s crop varieties; Fortunately, no seeds were lost, but the risk was high. The moonluckily, wouldn’t have these problems.

Storage services on the moon

Sending a box of frozen living cells to a dark spot on the moon presents unique challenges, and scientists are still figuring out the plan’s blueprints. Firstly, the biobank should be packed in a radiation-resistant packaging to protect the frozen samples during their use time on the moon, which contains no air and is therefore very susceptible to damage from the sun. Another concern is how the biorepository could be placed in a lunar crater, as the ice-covered floors of these features pose a challenge for astronauts to navigate. Hagedorn said it could be a job for robots, perhaps like the dog-shaped one NASA is working on to one day explore dangerous areas on the moon – possibly together with groups of robot companions.

On an experimental basis, Hagedorn led an attempt to do so collected and cryopreserved 10 fins of Starry goby, small fish whose bodies are dotted with iridescent blue spots. They are found in abundance near coral reef habitats.

Ultimately, she hopes to secure funding and partners to test how these samples fare under space-like conditions simulated on Earth. Then a test drive on the International Space Station (ISS) would show how different the returned samples are compared to their counterparts on Earth, which could then guide packaging requirements – that is, if the ISS still exists. Hagedorn estimates that sending samples to the ISS would take anywhere from three to five years from the time she receives funding, a timeline that may be too long given the circumstances. planned retirement from ISS by 2030.

Still, “that’s easy compared to trying to decide where it’s going to go on the moon and what it’s going to be like there,” she said. Managing the facility’s voyages and location on the moon “will be very complex and could take years.”

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Hagedorn is not the only researcher investigating the feasibility of a lunar biorepository. In 2021, University of Arizona researcher Jekan Thanga proposed sending an ark filled with cryogenically frozen seeds, sperm, and eggs from 6.7 million Earth species to lava tubes on the moon as a “modern global insurance policy.” His team estimated such an effort would require 250 rocket launches; For context, building the ISS required forty launches in ten years.

If a lunar biorepository is ever successful (the goal is undoubtedly lofty), scientists hope it could act as a safeguard against the loss of not only corals but millions of other species – maybe even people.

However, not everyone agrees that this is a good proposal. ‘I do not think so [the] the right idea for now,” says Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity CBS News. “I think we really need to focus on protecting more of the natural world so that we don’t lose species in the first place.”

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