£14 million hi-tech aviary to freeze rare bird DNA

Rare birds are to have cell samples frozen. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Rare birds are to have cell samples frozen. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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IN a scene straight from a science fiction film, a £14 million hi-tech “aviary” will protect rare and endangered bird species by freezing their cells.

The bank of cells will be kept in a Jurassic Park-style lab, in a step that could potentially see species brought back to life after they have been declared extinct in the wild.

The new research facility at Easter Bush. Picture: Contributed

The new research facility at Easter Bush. Picture: Contributed

The idea is far from bird-brained as, with 2122 bird species on the endangered list, the Edinburgh bank could possibly prevent many of them from going the same way as the dodo.

Dr Mike McGrew – one of the key people at the Roslin Institute’s National Avian Research Facility – said: “We could use this system to propagate endangered species or potentially to bring back an extinct one.”

The facility, or NARF, at Edinburgh University’s Easter Bush campus was officially opened by UK minister for universities and science David Willetts yesterday.

Part of the centre that created Dolly the sheep, one of its key aims will be to carry out research into chickens, and the possible creation of so-called Frankenchickens, or birds immune to the march of diseases like avian flu.

Professor Pete Kaiser, who will head NARF, said: “Chicken is second only to pig in world production of meat as a source of food and to secure this vital resource, these facilities will deliver world-leading research to improve the health and welfare of these birds.”

However, as well as improving chicken health and protecting food sources by tackling diseases such as campylobacter and salmonella, NARF also aims to protect populations of chickens and other species of bird from extinction by preserving their stem cells in the frozen aviary.

While in mammals genetic data can be saved by freezing sperm, which carries both the X and Y chromosomes, avian sperm only carries the male Y chromosome, meaning the female X chromosome cannot be preserved this way.

Prof Kaiser explained: “The chicken has a special type of stem cell, the primordial germ cell (PGC), which can be isolated from the embryo.”

Methods to culture these cells, freeze and resurrect them have been developed by the team, paving the way for their cryogenic bird revival plan.
Prof Kaiser said: “This has been done for chickens initially, and we are now looking to freeze down PGCs from different lines of chickens and rare breeds. There is also the exciting prospect of developing the technology for other avian species, in particularly species that are under threat of extinction.”

In March this year, the Roslin Institute revealed that a team led by Dr McGrew had discovered how to create chickens which could lay eggs that could hatch into ducks, songbirds, hawks or eagles, and hoped the technology could be used to preserve endangered species of bird.

The scientists had already used the technique to create a chicken fathered by a duck, and a houbara – a large bustard – fathered by a cockerel.

DOLLY, DARLING OF THE CLONERS

THE Roslin Institute gained mass media coverage and worldwide notoriety in 1997 after creating Dolly the sheep, the first animal to be successfully cloned from an adult cell.

Dolly was featured in a Time magazine special, as well as being Science Magazine’s breakthrough of the year. The cloning of other mammals has since been attempted, but the results have been mixed due to a level of uncertainty on the process. Cloning has been put forward as an answer to a number of problems, such as world hunger and organ donation. However, human cloning currently remains illegal and is condemned by a number of groups in society.

Dolly was put to sleep due to a serious lung disease on February 14, 2003, at the age of six.