All around us, every day, things are disappearing—birds, butterflies, coral reefs, islands. Places we used to live. Things we used to eat. But what if there was a way to bring some of it back? Well, it turns out there is. A few miles north of San Diego, scientists are gathering up specimens of every living thing they can get their hands on in a last-ditch effort to save the planet from an unstoppable predator: us
I. Nobody Say “Jurassic Park”
A few weeks ago, a humpback whale arrived in a FedEx box. Dr. Oliver Ryder removed the vial containing the whale from the package. He used its cells to grow more cells. Then he froze it. “And you know how hard it is to get a sample of a whale, legally?” It’s hard. There are rules about this sort of thing, shipping whales across national borders. Nevertheless, more boxes—full of deer, ibis, flamingos, desert tortoises, rhinos—arrive every day. They are unboxed, grown anew. Then they go into the Frozen Zoo to be saved.
It’s unassuming, the Frozen Zoo—just north of San Diego, deep in California inland nothingness, where it is housed at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. The institute is like any other academic building: low-slung, quiet, smells of cleaning supplies. The Frozen Zoo itself is even less glamorous. A room full of big frozen steel tanks fed by vacuum jacketed pipes pumping liquid nitrogen. Every time you open one of the freezers you get a witchy puff of smoke. Inside the tanks are the animals.
Ryder points at a tank, which he says contains nearly all of the Frozen Zoo’s individuals. Almost 10,000 of them. “They compress to a pretty small space,” he says. Each individual has its cells split up, placed into multiple tubes. “Half of the vials of an individual are in that freezer. Half of the vials are in a freezer in another place, so even if this building is destroyed we won’t lose the collection.” Ryder will not disclose the whereabouts of this other place. An undisclosed location.
Ten thousand individuals. Representing about a thousand species and sub-species. In this regular-looking steel tank. “And it’s the size of a refrigerator?” Ryder asks rhetorically. “That’s the densest vertebrate biological diversity on the planet.”
It’s an ark, in other words: Ryder’s building an ark. An ark in a freezer! The mission of the Frozen Zoo, Ryder says, is to preserve “a legacy of life on Earth” at the precise moment that life, in all its glamorous and tedious and ungainly forms, is disappearing from our orb at an alarming rate. We’re losing big charismatic mega-fauna like elephants. Also vital little soldiers like bees. And, increasingly, actual people. We’re running out of water, out of food, out of bees. We’re running out of the life that makes other life. It’s going away. Maybe we’re going away. So Ryder is building an ark.
Some of the animals whose genetic material is stored in the ark are still here on Earth, alive, walking around. Many are long dead. Some represent species that are endangered—the ancient Przewalski’s horse, which looks, with its long block head and placid eyes, like a living cave painting. One species in the Frozen Zoo, the po‘ouli, a portly Hawaiian bird, is extinct. The only place it lives on—“lives” is probably not the right word, or at least not yet—is here, in the Frozen Zoo.
What is the ark for? That depends on how you look at it. From one angle, it’s a museum: a catalog of what we have, or—increasingly—what we had, here on Earth. With a microscope, it’s the Met. From another angle, it’s a research resource. This is its primary use. “We’ve sent thousands of samples to hundreds of investigators,” says Ryder, with his cheerful beard and his fleece vest and plaid shirt and baggy pants. “It’s not a time capsule. It is used.” But the Frozen Zoo also has a third purpose. For a while Ryder didn’t like to talk about this fact. Visitors would come to the zoo and throw around words like “Jurassic Park.” They’d ask the obvious questions about bringing animals back to life, dead but for the cells and DNA that live on in the Frozen Zoo. Is that possible? Or will it be, someday?
“People would ask us about that,” Ryder says. “I avoided that question because I considered it spurious and I didn’t want to deal with sensationalism. I wanted to acquaint people with the real problems of trying to save species today, not like fantasy solutions for the future.”
A long pause. “But there’s been kind of a convergence, and the technology has developed.”
So, yes, the third purpose of the Frozen Zoo is this: Resurrection. Reanimation. Whatever you want to call it. (Nobody at the Frozen Zoo, nobody anywhere with any kind of serious scientific background, calls it any of those things. If they have to say something, they say de-extinction.) The technology exists. To create clones, basically—to take the still-living cells of a dead animal from a dead species and reprogram those cells into sperm or eggs. To combine sperm and egg. To put that fertilized egg into a surrogate host, which will then give birth. To take what was dead and gone and give it life again. Scientists have done it with a mouse already—siphoned off blood from a mouse’s tail, extracted white blood cells, turned them back into stem cells, built a whole new mouse. “It’s been the realm of science fiction, but here we have it, here it’s going to be used and we’re deciding now what we do next,” Ryder admits grudgingly. “Each current generation understands they can’t bring back what was lost, you know? Then they go through their own sense of loss. We can mitigate some of that.”
Imagine: through history, things just vanishing around us. The common estimate is that 99 percent of what has ever lived on this Earth has since vanished. Over 5 billion species, gone forever. That process now accelerating to a frightening speed, on account of us. So much loss that it outpaces our capacity for grief, if that makes sense. But for how long? The world is shrinking, closing in on us. Life is fading away.