Museum’s zombie lab is preserving biodiversity

A subterranean vault within Melbourne Museum contains millions of cryogenically frozen living cells.

The unusual collection includes some 50,000 samples of blood, feathers, tail tips and ear snips from mammals, reptiles, birds and marine creatures, all carefully preserved in 2mL tubes.

Like a safe deposit box for biodiversity, the Ian Potter Australian Wildlife BioBank – is like an insurance policy against the threat of extinction.

Professor Andrew Pask from the University of Melbourne – which is partnering with Museums Victoria Research Institute on the initiative preserving living cells – says Australia’s amazing biodiversity is constantly under threat from habitat loss, introduced species and adverse weather events like floods, bushfires and extreme storms.

Andrew Pask looking at cells under the microscope (Credit: Petra Stock)

“Australia has such precious and unique wildlife that we really need to be biobanking everything that we possibly can,” he says.

Once cryogenically frozen, those living cells can be used to bring species back later on, using standard cloning techniques, he says.

Supercharging biodiversity

Dr Joanna Sumner is the Senior Manager of Genetic Resources at the Institute and manages the biobank collection space and laboratories.

She says when living cells from threatened or endangered animals are expertly frozen, they remain “in suspended animation until we thaw them, until we bring them up to room temperature.”

Dr Joanna Sumner pulling specimens out of the cryotank (Credit: Petra Stock)

Despite its grandiose goal – to safeguard the future of Australia’s biodiversity – the initiative takes up surprisingly little space.

In one room, a couple of cryotanks – each capable of holding 80,000 samples – are kept at minus 186oC through regular deliveries of liquid nitrogen.

“Your usual freezer is minus 20oC, this is much, much colder,” Sumner says.

An adjacent room contains lab space where 2 incubators are kept warm for the growing cells before they’ve been frozen.

While cell cultures are usually grown from tissue samples taken from live animals, Sumner says occasionally the tissue from deceased animals can be used to grow cell cultures too, although the cells are slower to grow before they are ready to be frozen.

Sumner facing camera
Dr Joanna Sumner standing in front of the cryotanks / Credit: Petra Stock

“It can feel a bit like it’s a zombie lab at times” she laughs.

Melbourne Museum is the only museum in Australia to house this kind of living biobank. It’s well placed to do so, Sumner says, because museums have a track record in storing collections over long periods of time.

In addition to the living cells, the Ian Potter Australian Wildlife BioBank also holds the Victorian State Collection of tissues and DNA.

The new initiative preserving living cells has been awarded an initial 3-year Australian Research Council Linkage grant, but Sumner is already on the hunt for longer term funding, to enable the museum to maintain and grow the resource, in perpetuity. Afterall, the living biobank might not realise its full potential until 100, or 200 years into the future.

Ongoing funding is needed for skilled technicians to maintain and continue to build the resource and enable the collection to be accessed by researchers.

“We don’t actually need a huge amount of space and resources, but we do need expertise,” Sumner says.

Sumner and pask
Dr Joanna Sumner and Professor Andrew Pask (Credit: Petra Stock)

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