Cryogenically freezing the DNA of livestock animals might sound like a science fiction twist to Noah’s Ark, yet it’s the mission of a newly forged partnership called The Smithsonian and Swiss Village Farm (SVF) Foundation Biodiversity Project. The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the SVF Foundation announced in late July that they have joined forces to preserve rare and endangered heritage breeds of livestock, animals that our American forefathers raised for agriculture. Over the next several years, the SVF Foundation’s collection of frozen genetic materials will be incorporated into the Smithsonian’s vast genetic library of endangered animal species.
Founded in 1998, Newport, R.I.-based SVF conserves rare heritage livestock breeds using a method known as cryopreservation. This means the SVF freezes the genetic materials of specific breeds in the form of embryos, sperm, blood, and cells. In the last 15 years, the foundation, with support from Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, has amassed 86,000 frozen genetic samples from 26 heritage breeds. The foundation selects breeds based on the Livestock Conservancy’s Priority List, which include the Dutch Belted Cattle and the Tunis Sheep.
Although heritage breeds cannot produce as much as the breeds that now dominate the meat, poultry and dairy industries, they possess distinct qualities that contribute to biodiversity, according to Peter Borden, the executive director of the SVF Foundation.
“Our commercial breeds do a wonderful job of providing us what we need, but what those breeds don’t have are certain traits that the heritage breeds do have, like disease resistance, mothering ability or simply environmental adaptation,” says Borden. “We can’t afford to crossbreed those traits out of existence.”
Borden added that if something were to threaten a commercial breed, such as an infectious disease, their collection would be useful in ensuring food security. They could thaw out the frozen germplasm and implant them into surrogates, which the SVF Foundation first accomplished in 2004 with a Tennessee fainting goat.
Even before contacting the Smithsonian, the SVF Foundation had, for some time, planned to transfer their growing genetic library to a larger bank. One component of the partnership involves the construction of a facility at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s 3,200-acre campus in Front Royal, Va., which they project will be finished in five years. Meanwhile, this would be the Smithsonian Institution’s first venture with heritage breeds.
“What [the SVF Foundation] does with heritage breeds, we do with endangered species,” says Pierre Comizzoli, a research biologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.
Comizzoli leads the Pan-Smithsonian Cryo-Initiative, which aims to oversee the Institution’s numerous collections of frozen samples from rare species, which in total consists of approximately one million frozen samples from 18,000 species. One major part of the initiative is a massive effort to create a catalog system between these collections.
For the SVF Foundation, the Smithsonian’s scientists would be able to provide their advanced expertise in preserving rare and endangered species. For example, according to Dr. Comizzoli, their skills would be helpful in improving success rates in artificial insemination to reawaken breeds as well as the quality of frozen genetic samples, a very delicate process.
“When you collect semen samples from any species, millions of sperm that are alive in the fresh sample will become lost in the freezing process,” says Comizzoli. “So you don’t just plunge a sample into liquid nitrogen. In order to make sure the maximum amount of sperm stay alive, we mix the samples with cryodiluents and freeze them at different rates, depending on the animal species, whether it’s a bull, giraffe or elephant.”
In other words, to make sure enough sperm survive, these scientists don’t cool the semen sample of a wolf at the same speed as they would cool a sample from a turtle. Additionally, to make things really tricky, Comizzoli says there’s also variation between individuals within a species, in terms of how much sperm die off in the cooling process.
As the partnership continues, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute plans to work with farmers to help the SVF Foundation acquire more genetic samples to reach the target of 140,000 samples from 35 breeds. Tracking down animals that belong to specific breeds, noted Borden, is a major challenge of preserving heritage livestock. Since the SVF Foundation requires 200 embryos and 3,000 straws of semen per breed, obtaining enough material for one breed can be slow and time-consuming.
Ultimately, Borden sees the partnership with the Smithsonian as a major turning point for the SVF Foundation and the preservation of heritage livestock breeds.
“It really validates all the effort we put in over the last fifteen years of going out and meeting with farmers, and acquiring all of these genetic samples of rare breeds,” says Borden. “Seeing the Smithsonian’s name next to ours—it doesn’t get any better than that.”