29th December 2014
Russia to create "Noah's Ark" of DNA
Moscow State University has announced the creation of a DNA bank to store genetic samples from every living thing on Earth. This new facility, funded by the country's largest ever scientific grant, will be opened in 2018.
According to latest estimates, there are 8.7 million living species on Earth (excluding bacteria and other single-celled microorganisms). The total number may never be known for sure. New organisms are discovered while many others are disappearing on a regular basis – and most of those being lost are never scientifically documented. The first life, known as prokaryotes (simple cells), developed in ancient oceans 3.6 billion years ago. Since that time, it is believed that 99.9% of species have gone extinct. The rate of extinctions has accelerated dramatically in the last century, with experts now reporting a 1,000-fold increase compared to the natural "background" level seen in the fossil record. Up to half of presently existing plant and animal species may vanish by 2100, a disaster similar in scale to the K–Pg event that killed off the dinosaurs.
In order to preserve as much of what remains as possible, Russia intends to build a gigantic facility – 430km² (166mi²) in size – located at one of the central campuses of Moscow State University (MSU). Costing 1 billion rubles (US$18 million), this is funded by the country's largest ever scientific grant and will serve as a repository for millions of genetic samples. All of the university's departments will be involved in research and gathering of materials when the project begins from 2018 onwards. Collaboration with other facilities both in Russia and internationally is also being considered.
"I call the project 'Noah's Ark.' It will involve the creation of a depository – a databank for the storing of every living thing on Earth, including not only living but disappearing and extinct organisms. This is the challenge we have set for ourselves," says Viktor Sadivnichy, MSU rector. "It will enable us to cryogenically freeze and store various cellular materials, which can then reproduce. It will also contain information systems. Not everything needs to be kept in a petri dish."
Given the sheer numbers involved, it could be many decades before samples are retrieved from a significant majority of organisms – and even longer before a global rewilding effort takes shape – but this Noah's Ark of DNA is an important step towards that eventual long-term goal. Other countries have attempted similar projects in recent years, such as Norway's Global Seed Vault and Britain's Frozen Ark. Perhaps in a few centuries, these same efforts will be conducted on alien planets.