Play it Cool! How EAZA’s Collaborative Banking of Samples Helps Improve Population Management and Conservation

Posted: 11 October 2022

  1. Christina Hvilsom,Chair of the EAZA Biobank Working Group
  2. Anna Mekarska, EAZA Biobank Coordinator
  3. Danny de Man, EAZA Deputy Executive Director and Director Conservation and Population Management

The EAZA Biobank, has made a transformative journey from a vision formed back in 2016, to being a well-established resource supporting population management and conservation research created by the European and Western Asian zoo and aquarium community. The success of EAZA Ex situ Programmes (EEPs) relies on intensive demographic and genetic management of animal populations. Currently, the majority of population management undertaken in zoos is individual and pedigree-based. Whilst this method works well for some populations, for other populations pedigree records might be incomplete or not available at all. Management can be further complicated by relatedness among founders which often builds upon assumptions and taxonomic uncertainties as well as for some species, their natural history does not lend itself to individual pedigree-based management (e.g., species living in groups). Given the expanding needs and possibilities for the use of molecular tools in population management it is necessary to ensure optimal and long-term storage of high-quality material that will have a significant impact on future population management and conservation research. The EAZA Biobank meets these requirements and is a unique international initiative collecting and storing samples from 400 Member institutions located in 48 countries!

EAZA Biobank Hub, Antwerp Zoo ©Antwerp-Zoo

Since its inception, four dedicated institutions have provided employment of qualified staff and allocation of funds for infrastructure and equipment to serve as the long-term, high-quality storage facilities (Hubs), where the physical samples are kept. These Hubs are located at Copenhagen Zoo, Antwerp Zoo (KMDA – Royal Zoological Society of Antwerp), Edinburgh Zoo (Royal Zoological Society of Scotland) and IZW in Berlin (Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research) and are the cornerstones of the EAZA Biobank. These four Hubs provide the daily sample handling, facilitate the transfer of samples from zoos and aquariums to the nearest dedicated Hub, and from the Hubs out to researchers, and serve as sample backup facilities. 

Because of the strong support and cooperation of EAZA zoos and aquariums, the Biobank is expanding and growing. The EAZA Biobank has already stored tens of thousands of samples, including historical and legacy collections, from more than 800 species, contributed by more than 250 zoological institutions. As the number of samples grows, so does the number of scientific studies conducted using collected samples. The EAZA Biobank Working Group has approved the release of samples for 27 research projects, with new applications coming in every month. The vast majority of projects are induced or related to EEP programmes. Genetic studies using EAZA Biobank samples cover, among other fields, the problem of hybridization (African penguins) or genetic assessments of EEP populations (Chimpanzee, Orangutan, Red panda, Great green macaws, Malayan tapir, Roti Island snake-necked turtle, Tufted deer). Genetic studies of EEP populations are often linked to understanding their potential to fulfil ex situ conservation roles including insurance, source, and other roles as recognised in the IUCN SSC Ex situ Guidelines, for example for the Amur leopard, European wildcat, Blue-throated macaw, Asian elephant and Vietnam pheasant. This demonstrates the direct impact of zoos providing samples to the Biobank on biodiversity conservation. The EAZA Biobank is also a source of samples from zoo animals for veterinary projects, such as the analyses of vitamin D levels in captive chimpanzees, the role of endogenous retroviruses in the development of the primate placenta or research on the markers of host resistance/susceptibility of suid species to African swine fever. Developments in research techniques and the increasing species extinction crisis are making samples from zoo animals essential.

At Work in EAZA Biobank, IZW Berlin Hub ©IZW
Advantages for zoos, EEPs and researchers

Collecting and storing samples from animals kept in EAZA zoos and aquariums in one centralised Biobank make samples become available to researchers in a much more timely and efficient manner than contacting individual institutions, facilitating much more robust research in a more immediate timeline, of benefit to the species. 

Daily routine of opportunistic sample collection by veterinarians is a key to the success of genetic and veterinary research development in modern zoos and aquariums. To facilitate sample collection and contribution the EAZA Biobank has developed tailored protocols for sample collection, (e.g., aquatic species), guidance and templates for ownership and use of the samples. These standard documents are used by zoos and aquariums sending samples to a dedicated Hub. Samples transferred to the Biobank are linked to the animal information held in the Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS). The EAZA Biobank together with Species360 and with financial support from Beauval Nature and KMDA (Royal Zoological Society of Antwerp) have built the EAZA Biobank Institution in ZIMS, allowing members to utilise the existing ‘sample storage module’ to share sample records and data with the Biobank electronically with the push of a button. This information-rich database offers transparency in allowing contributing members to view their donations via this sample storage module which gives an oversight of what they have already shared. 

The EEP Coordinators have a significant role in the process of research project approval, sample collection and use. They often initiate the collection of samples, which is managed by the permanent Biobank Coordinator, rooted at the EAZA Executive Office. The Coordinator position has been instrumental to the success of the Biobank, allowing daily management to run smoothly and ensuring the EAZA Memberships treasure trove of samples are safeguarded so they can be used for multiple research projects, now and in the future. 

For researchers, the EAZA Biobank facilitates a fast and systematic process from research review, and if approved, to sample release and use, enabling more population management and conservation  research.

Blood Draw in a Trained Asian Elephant During Lay Down ©Imke-Luders
Cryopreservation Network

The EAZA Biobank does not have capacity for cryopreservation services at this time, but the EAZA community recognises the importance of cryopreservation of reproductive material and cell lines as additional tools to manage selected species within EAZA member institutions or in the wild. The EAZA Biobank, Reproductive Management Group, Population Management Advisory Group and EAZA Population Management Centre have created a Cryopreservation Network connecting EAZA EEPs and Members with cryopreservation needs to specialised storage facilities and researchers who already have these capabilities and can fulfil these needs. In order to guide the EAZA Membership on this complex and multifaceted issue, guidance and templates for MOUs and material transfer agreements on ownership and use of these samples are available. 

EAZA is growing its network of cryopreservation facilities and has already signed an MOU with an NGO – Nature’s SAFE in the UK. So far, Nature’s SAFE has enabled the cryopreservation of 280 different samples submitted by EAZA members. The samples span a variety of tissue types gametes (eggs and sperm), muscle, skin and gonad tissues (ovaries and testes) representing 108 species, including mountain chicken frogs, a jaguar, Owston’s palm civets, Javan green magpies, an African wild dog and Boelen’s pythons. By working with additional cryopreservation facility partners and connecting with researchers to help develop species specific protocols EAZA will strive to further build and strengthen this network in the future.

© CERZA

At a time where there is already an urgency to save species under threat before they are permanently lost, it is critical that conservation professionals put on a unified front and coordinated effort. Only by bringing together experts from many fields, the world over, can we make immediate, impactful strides forward. While the EAZA Biobank is the primary resource for genetically supporting population management and conservation research, created by the EAZA Membership, we are dedicated to supporting emerging wildlife biobanks worldwide and facilitating knowledge and data sharing between initiatives and researchers to create a global collaborative network of biobanks, with the ultimate aim of benefitting the conservation of all biodiversity, by any means possible.

More information about the EAZA Biobank can be found at: www.eaza.net/conservation/research/eaza-biobank/

EAZA Biobank Coordinator contact: biobank@eaza.net

Credits for header image: Blood Sampling © Copenhagen Zoo

The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) is the global alliance of regional associations, national federations, zoos and aquariums, dedicated to the care and conservation of animals and their habitats around the world.

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